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Dave lives in Bay View and is a graduate student at Marquette University. He is a student of politics and history, a skeptic, optimist, and writer, among other things.

If You'd Like to Make a Call, Do It Soon

walker, telephone, regulation, AT&T

My AT&T cell phone doesn’t really work in my house. If I lean against the rear window I can usually make a call, but I am often not leaning against the rear window.

I mention this problem not because it is annoying, which it is, or because it is new, which it is not. I mention it to illustrate that wireless service is not great or dependable even in a large urban area. This matters because the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly, which are now open for business, recently passed a bill to deregulate telecommunications companies. Among other things, their bill removes the requirement that AT&T make basic landline telephone service available to residents throughout the state.

Yes, landlines are old technology. The curly cords on wired telephones invariably become either overcurled or undercurled over time and their backlit keypads cannot be used to play Tiny Wings. Nevertheless, according to a study published in April by the CDC, 38% of Wisconsin adults live in households that are either mostly or completely dependent on landline telephones.

If you live in Milwaukee like I do, you will still be able to get home phone service from Time Warner or AT&T at reasonable prices and you will still be able to use a handset with a curly cord or big backlit buttons if you like. That’s because there are a lot of people here, and together a lot of people have a lot of money. Other places in Wisconsin, as you know, do not have as many people or much money.

Thanks to this new legislation, after April 30, 2013, AT&T will no longer be required to maintain telephone lines in those places where it is not profitable to do so. And because AT&T is not a charity, it will most likely retreat from sparsely populated rural areas.

And in rural areas alternatives to landlines are not always available. Describing her western Wisconsin district to WUWM, Senator Kathleen Vinehout said, “Some people cannot switch to something that does not exist. We can’t switch to wireless because wireless doesn’t work. We can’t switch to cable because cable isn’t there. And if the land line is pulled, how are people going to stay in touch.”

After 2013, even this classic telecommunication option will be unavailable to many Wisconsin residents, putting our state's technological progress behind that of Green Acres.

After many Wisconsin residents inevitably lose their telephone connection to the outside world, they will each become like that isolated Japanese soldier who was still fighting World War II until 1974. You’ll see them emerge from time to time at State Fair or a Packers game, looking confused and disoriented. Then they’ll head back home, where they still think they have collective bargaining rights, and they still don’t allow each other to hide handguns on themselves at gas stations and taverns.

Or perhaps instead they’ll just have a reduced quality of life without telephone service. And find it difficult to contact family or the authorities or medical help in an emergency. And they’ll have to wait for their children or the mailman to visit in order to collectively thank God that Wisconsin is finally open for business.

This isn’t about giving people free telephones or about letting people hang onto old tech simply because they want to. It is about ensuring the provision of a basic public service – connection to the outside world. If it really is more cost-effective for telecommunication companies to abandon old analog lines and replace them with digital or wireless service, then the bill should require that those new services are available to all residents. It does not.

Rather, it simply removes the requirement that this essential connection be made available to everyone. The existing rule was put in place because the free market could not be depended on to provide comprehensive, affordable telephone service on its own. That has not changed. Instead, our state government just no longer seems to care. 

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