By Associated Press Staff
LANSING, Mich. — Michigan police chiefs and sheriffs on Monday came out against legislation that would make it easier for phone companies to stop offering traditional land line service, saying it would put seniors and rural residents at risk during emergencies.
The bill won overwhelmingly approval in the Senate last week and could see quick passage from the House this week before lawmakers adjourn for the year.
It's backed by AT&T and other phone providers as a way to streamline regulations and free up money for Internet-based land lines and wireless technology instead of having to spend on traditional wire lines that customers are dropping. It's opposed by the AARP and groups that represent Michigan police chiefs and county sheriffs. State Attorney General Bill Schuette also still has concerns despite the Senate adding in more consumer protections, a spokeswoman said Monday.
Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, told reporters that when he was Livonia's chief during the 2003 power blackout, cell towers were jammed and Voice over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, lines had no power.
"We had no communication other than the people that had land lines," he said at a news conference. "The only reliable communication that's in this state right now are land lines."
Starting in 2017, the legislation would remove state regulators from the front end of a process by which phone providers can ask to end wire line service. They would still need clearance from federal regulators.
The bill would let customers losing traditional service ask the Michigan Public Service Commission to investigate whether "comparable voice service with reliable access to 911" is still available. If the commission decided that such service was not available, it would force the current company to provide service until another willing provider was available.
"That's not a reasonable burden to put on anybody to maintain what could be a life-and-death service," said Eric Schneidewind, a former PSC chairman who sits on the AARP's board of directors.
Matt Resch, a spokesman for AT&T of Michigan, said VoIP and mobile phones work with 911, noting that 83 percent of 911 calls placed on AT&T's network last year were made on a cellphone.
"People have more access to 911 today than they ever have," he said.
Addressing concerns about VoIP's compatibility with medical alert systems, Resch said AT&T technicians make sure the devices work with the phone system before leaving a house and medical-alert companies are increasingly moving toward wireless technology. He said the bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and is sponsored by a former state police trooper.
The number of traditional land lines in Michigan dropped from 6.7 million in 2000 to 2.6 million last year, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In the same period, the number of wireless lines increased from 3.5 million to 9.3 million. Another 1.4 million land line users were served with VoIP.
The FCC is looking to state regulators for guidance on transitioning away from traditional land lines, so Michigan's input will be heard, Resch said. The PSC is neutral on the legislation.
"We're not talking about any of this happening tomorrow or next week or even next year," Resch said.
Senate Bill 636: http://1.usa.gov/18GqQoG
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press