MARIETTA - With the steady stream of innovations to wireless phones, many companies are regarding the traditional landline as obsolete.
That's the basis behind proposed legislation in the Ohio General Assembly that would allow companies to discontinue basic phone service and be exempt from quality standards set by Senate Bill 162, also known as the Ohio Telecom Modernization Act, passed in 2009.
The proposed legislation, SB 271, is in committee before the Ohio House of Representatives after being approved by the senate. By being exempt from SB 162, companies can avoid stipulations such as repairing outages within 72 hours and installation of new service within five business days.
"In some ways you realize that markets are constantly changing. Fifteen years ago the prevalence of cell phones and the fact that cell phones might replace landlines was not necessarily conceivable," said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Frank LaRose of Fairlawn has told The Associated Press the bill allows companies to invest in high-speed services.
Charles Moses, president of the Ohio Telecom Association, which represents companies like AT&T and Frontier Communications, and supports the bill, said the bill modernizes Ohio's telecommunications law and responds to increased competition in the marketplace.
About Ohio Senate Bill 271
Phone companies could discontinue basic landline services beginning July 1, 2013 if an area is deemed competitive by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Areas are deemed competitive if there are at least two telecommunications providers in that area providing services such as cellphone, digital phone or cable phone.
Phone companies can be exempt from meeting standards from Senate Bill 162 such as stipulating that outages must be fixed within 72 hours and companies must make all reasonable efforts to repair a basic local exchange service outage within 24 hours.
Source: Ohio General Assembly
The bill addresses Carrier of Last Resort obligations that previously required franchises to serve everyone who wanted service in a franchise territory.
"In today's fully competitive market, the COLR obligation requires the expenditure of money and other resources on providing basic local exchange service where there may be no market demand for such services," Moses said in a statement.
But many opponents of the bill argue it could deny citizens in rural or low-income areas access to basic services, such as emergency medical services.
"We also have a concern that customers that rely on their landline service, and many Ohioans do, especially in the senior population and low income population, we have a concern that there may be some lack of ability to access 911 services," said Marty Berkowitz, senior media specialist with the Ohio Consumers Counsel.
Berkowitz said the bill as it's proposed could force Ohio citizens to purchase more expensive services they don't need to maintain landline service and remove some citizen's access to phone service entirely.
According to a copy of the bill provided by the Ohio state legislature, to discontinue basic telephone service a company must prove there are at least two other telecommunications companies providing services within the area. Those companies, however, do not have to provide service through the entire area serviced by the phone company.
For rural areas like Washington County, that can lead to some people being unable to acquire a basic phone service.
"That (Marietta area) is an area where wireless service can be a little spotty. People might not have access to communication the way they would in a more populous area," Berkowitz said.
The Ohio Consumers Counsel and AARP Ohio are both working with legislators to refine the proposed bill.
"There is clearly still a need for landline service, as just kind of a backup if not the main source of telephone calls," Thompson said.
Senior citizens are one of the groups most affected by the loss of basic landline service, the OCC and AARP say.
Susie Casto, manager of the Belpre Senior Citizen Center, said the majority of seniors that use the center continue to use a landline phone.
"We have seen an increase in the number of seniors who use cell phones, but that certainly isn't the majority," Casto said.
The cost of cell phones, which on average run roughly $20 more per month than a basic phone line, as well as familiarity with landlines are key factors in their continued use among seniors, Casto said.
Another issue for seniors is that the keypads on cell phones can be difficult to see and operate, if the senior suffers from arthritis or vision impairments.
"There are cell phones out there that are more easily operated as far as large numbers, and that kind of thing, but I don't think that is necessarily your basic cell phone," Casto said.
Even the seniors who do use cell phones tend not to use them as their predominant method of communication, instead using them for emergencies, Casto said.
SB 271 is not expected out of committee before the Ohio House of Representatives breaks for the Easter holiday. A vote could come sometime in April.
Representatives like Thompson continue to study the bill. Thompson said he has received considerable comment from constituents, and encouraged people to contact their legislators to express their view.
"There are legitimate concerns about this and we want to make sure Ohio goes in the right direction," Thompson said.