Under the radar, with little debate, the most significant telecommunications bill of the year slipped virtually unnoticed out of the Senate and went to the Assembly, where it was approved without a dissenting vote at its first major policy hearing.

Pushed by AT&T and Verizon, among others, the legislation – SB 1375 by Sen. Curren Price, D-Los Angeles –  would eliminate the requirement, which dates from 1995, that the phone companies maintain so-called “warm lines” indefinitely.

Warm lines are land lines that once carried regular phone service that has since been disconnected, either because the customer didn’t pay the bill or shifted to cellular or other service. The abandoned lines can remain “warm” – electrified – for years and they can still be used to make 9-1-1 calls, so even low-income people have access to emergency services – the point of the original law, according to critics of Price’s bill.

The industry says the point of the original law was to provide transition service.

“A warm line was never intended to be a long term safety net. This legislation calls for a comprehensive education and outreach program to help ensure consumers who need it know how to access low cost phone service,” said AT&T spokesperson James Peterson.  “For low income Californians, the state offers the California Lifeline program, one of
the most generous subsidy programs of its kind, with basic phone service for under $5 per month.”

Some opponents of the bill say the issue has been jammed through the legislative process with little hearing or debate. 

“That’s really one of the discouraging things, that it was rushed through the Senate,” said Charles Cullen, technical services director for the Palo Alto Police Department, which opposes the legislation. Cullen had hoped to testify on the bill. Supporters of the legislation said there had been a hearing on the bill, then in the form of a “spot bill” with little substantive language, although critics who followed the legislation said they were unaware of it.

Price and supporters of his bill argue that changing technology has made the warm lines largely obsolete, and that maintaining them in perpetuity is not cost-effective for consumers or the state.

“The 15-year-old ‘warm-line’ system was never designed to provide permanent access – and we cannot continue to pretend that it does,” Price said earlier in a written statement. “Providing this service under current law is costly and burdensome to the industry, local governments as well as the state,” he said, contending that low-income residents can get low-cost phone telephone service. 

Thus far, lawmakers agree with them: Following the Senate, his bill was approved without dissent by the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, and now awaits action in Appropriations. In the Assembly, supporters argued that aging, frayed warm lines sent false signals into the 9-1-1 system, triggering spurious calls.

The committee agreed.

“I, too, had concerns about the termination of the warm lines, and that’s why we extended the notification period from 90 to 120 days,” said Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Inglewood, the chair of the Utilities and Commerce Committee. “Is it a perfect bill? No,” he added. “What I probably would like to see is an exemption for rural, remote areas where people don’t get a cell phone signal. We need to exclude them (from disconnection) to make sure their warm lines stay active.”

But the bill’s quick trajectory raised suspicions from critics and consumer-advocacy groups, including one that successfully challenged AT&T over the company’s earlier attempt to disconnect warm lines – a move that resulted in an initial $1.7 million penalty.

One company noted that the issue had been simmering for some time, and that lawmakers realized that it should be resolved.

“People understood the issue, that was part of it. This is an issue that’s been out there, and we felt that it was time that it be addressed,” said Verizon spokesman Jon Davies.

At least one lawmaker is pushing for another hearing on Price’s bill: Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Ontario, a former 9-1-1 dispatcher, who heads the Select Committee on 9-1-1 Service. She reportedly has had a request in with the speaker’s office since May.

A large number of telecommunications-industry lobbyists – two observers said they counted nearly two dozen – closely followed the proceedings in the Capitol.

AT&T is a major Capitol political player – it backs the annual Speaker’s Cup golf tournament in Pebble Beach –  spends about $500,000 a quarter on lobbying expenses alone. In addition to its in-house lobbyists, the company’s hired advocates read like a Who’s Who of Sacramento lobbyists, including Aaron Read & Associates, Rose & Kindel, Platinum Advisors and others. Verizon Communications, meanwhile, spends about $160,000 a quarter on lobbying, and its hired firms include Sloat Higgins and the Flanigan Law Firm.

“It is outrageous. It was a ‘jam job’ – they jammed it right through the Senate on a 28-point-8 (a quick vote) and nobody even noticed it,” said Lenny Goldberg, a lobbyist for The Utility Reform Network. “The bottom line is you have to have a public discussion on all this. What this bill would do is change the current law that every residence and unit in California should be able to contact 9-1-1. They (the phone companies) want to walk away from that, they just want to say, ‘We won’t do it anymore.’”

Warm lines have electricity, which means a 9-1-1 call can be placed even when the rest of the household’s power is out.  Right now, there are about 2 million warm lines in California – up from 150,000 five years ago – and telephone companies say that number is increasing by about 400,000 warm lines annually.

Maintaining those lines cost money – perhaps $100 million annually, according to the industry — and the current law requires that they be maintained in perpetuity. The money comes from surcharges collected by the state and distributed to 9-1-1 systems to maintain equipment and services. Statewide, the system handles some 25 million 9-1-1 calls annually.

Those local lines may be disconnected from a home or apartment, and those locations may be vacant or have a new resident that likely doesn’t’ even know a phone line exists, AT&T notes. In many cases, these lines are no longer connected to a jack, and have no customer associated with it.  These scenarios making testing virtually impossible and impractical, the company says.

Critics of the legislation believe the companies’ goal is to get out from under the requirement to maintain the lines, and to avoid potential questions about why the warm lines deteriorated on the companies’ watch.

“The rates they charge right now include money that was set aside to maintain this system, so this bill is allowing the utilities to walk. They are being paid to maintain the lines,” said Michael Shames of the San Diego-based Utility Consumers Action Network.

The frayed and aging lines also can lead to so-called ‘phantom calls,” in which damaged
wiring can trigger what appears to be a legitimate 9-1-1 call but which, in fact, is spurious. Those calls waste law enforcement resources – one reason why the Peace Officers Research Association of California supports the bill – and backers of SB 1375 believe those lines should be disconnected.

Price’s bill would do just that: It would authorize the lines to be disconnected beginning in January 2011 with a 120-day notice.

Goldberg wants a PUC investigation of the warm lines, including a look at the quality of maintenance performed by AT&T and Verizon. If the warm lines are deteriorating and triggering phantom calls, he said, it may be due to inadequate maintenance – which the surcharge from customers is intended to finance.

Just how many phantom calls are made is an open question. A PUC analysis found that some 9,346 calls statewide originated from warm lines during the summer of 2009, and that the lines generated nearly 6,000 false calls. A PUC staff  analysis also found that 3 percent of calls from warm lines required an actual fire or emergency medical response, which equated to 270 calls during March 2009. The 3 percent figure reflects the minimum number of emergency calls and does not include police dispatches that required a law enforcement presence, according to an Assembly analysis. The warm-line calls are small compared to the total number of 9-1-1 calls, about 25 million annually
The latest fight over warm lines is not the first time that AT&T has faced the issue.  

Shames’ group, UCAN, filed a complaint with the state Public Utilities Commission, demanding a halt to AT&T’s practice of disconnecting the lines 180 days after billed service was discontinued. The PUC determined that AT&T had violated the warm-line rule and fined the company $1.7 million, a penalty that the company appealed. On May 24, a state appellate court upheld most of the PUC’s findings. AT&T has challenged the appeals court decision in the state Supreme Court.

Whatever the ultimate fate of SB 1375, the issue of disconnecting the warm lines may be fraught with peril, Cullen said.

“People don’t think about 9-1-1 service until they need it. The first time somebody’s warm line is cut and something really bad happens, we’ll hear about it in a negative way,” he said.

Ed’s Note: Corrects 19th paragraph to reflect funds’ use and collection.

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