‘Warm lines’ targeted by telephone companies

Legislation pushed by major telephone companies – including AT&T, Verizon and Frontier – would eliminate the requirement that the phone companies maintain some 2 million aging “warm lines,” which typically have been abandoned by customers who switched from land-based to wireless service or who were delinquent in their bills, according to a legislative analyst. The lines can remain “warm” for years unused.

The bill, SB 1375 by Sen. Curren Price, D-Los Angeles, emerged earlier from the Senate and awaits its first hearing Monday in the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee.

The requirement to provide the warm-line 911 service, although little known to the general public, has been in effect for 15 years, in part as a safety feature for low-income customers. 

But the telephone companies note that the current system is fraught with problems. Apart from maintaining an aging infrastructure, there is the issue of “phantom” 911 calls – false calls triggered by deteriorating or broken lines – that plague law enforcement agencies. Supporters of the bill have included the California State Sheriffs Association and the Peace Officers Research Association of California.

The Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based ratepayer advocacy group, opposes the bill, saying that it favors maintaining warm-line 911 service, without a time limit, for people whose lines have been disconnected for nonpayment. TURN also called for greater notification from companies when disconnecting service.

According to a legislative analysis citing 2009 figures, about 25 million 911 calls are made annually in California, and about two-thirds of those are made on wireless phones. Warm-line 911 calls totaled 11,000 in March and about 13,700 in April, the state said, but it was unknown how many were legitimate 911 calls and how many were phantom calls. 

There are about 2 million warm lines in California now, up dramatically from the 150,000 in 2005. State law generally requires the telephone companies to maintain the lines indefinitely.

In a separate but related case, the Utility Consumers Action Network in San Diego complained to the Public Utilities Commission of AT&T’s former policy of maintaining warm-line service for only 180 days after discontinuing billed service. The PUC sided the San Diego group, but an appeals court ruled later that the PUC erred in its decision, although it did order a reduction in a $1.7 million penalty.

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