Call Kurtis Investigates: Are Phone Companies Phasing Out Traditional Landlines?

VERNALIS (CBS13) – Cut off from the rest of the world after a winter storm took out her phone service, Jennifer Morelos says she waited for almost an entire month for Frontier Communications to restore it.

“It’s very important for us to have a landline,” said Morelos.

She says cell service is spotty at her Vernalis home in San Joaquin County and without a landline; the mother of three was scared they couldn’t call out in an emergency.

“That goes through your mind, that there’s no way to get help,” said Morelos.

Foothills resident Steve Truax has the same concern.

“You pick up the phone and you don’t get a dial tone,” said Truax.

He says a lightning strike took out his landline at his home tucked away in the hills outside Placerville.

“We got the same line every time on the phone ‘Oh yeah someone will be out there tomorrow,’ and of course they didn’t show up,” he said.

 

 

Truax says it took AT&T 17 days to get out here and fix it. The phone companies  blamed bad weather.

Nancy Biagini represents the repair crews.

“It’s because they’re choosing not to maintain the lines to the level with which they used to maintain, and why aren’t they maintaining it? Because it costs more,” said Biagini, representative for the Communication Workers of America.

Consumer advocates think the phone companies are pushing customers toward wireless technology which is more profitable but they say less reliable .

Ultimately fearing a landline phase-out, Mark Toney Executive Director at The Utility Reform Network is concerned for the 7 million Californians he says rely on traditional landlines.

“It’s literally a lifeline for people. It could be a matter of life and death,” said Toney.

We brought those concerns to AT&T’s Vice President of External Affairs Marc Blakeman.

Kurtis Ming: Does AT&T want to abandon the traditional landline?
Marc Blakeman: Absolutely not

Blakeman admits the company is devoting fewer linemen to maintain the network. “Yes in some locations there are fewer people, but there are fewer customers as well,” he said.

Since 1999, he says there are 85 percent fewer landline customers. But he insists AT&T is not phasing out traditional phone service.

Kurtis Ming: Fewer customers have copper landlines, so why would AT&T continue to invest money  in an area of its business where you have fewer customers?
Marc Blakeman: We have a regulatory responsibility to do so.

And it’s true. The California Public Utilities  Commission set a standard that 90 percent of outages must be fixed within 24 hours. According to records we pulled, AT&T and Verizon have not met that annual standard once since 2010. In two reports since 2011, the California Public Utilities Commission found AT&T and Verizon (which has since sold off its landline service to Frontier), “were not meeting service quality standards.” One report specifically mentions the “out of service restoration time.”

“We continue to invest in our network and we have no interest in leaving anyone behind,” said Blakeman.

In 2012, the CPUC ordered an independent study of the “Condition of network infrastructure….as it is likely to exist tomorrow”.

But the study hasn’t happened yet. According to documents we pulled, the soonest we will see the results would be mid-2017.

Frontier wouldn’t speak with us on camera, but says it will continue to maintain copper lines.

And for the people on the other end of the telephone line like Morelos and Truax, they just hope they’ve got a dial tone when they need it most.

“You need to have a lifeline. You need to have a phone,” said Morelos.

“For 100 years we’ve known that telephone service was reliable, and now who knows,” said Truax.

AT&T’s Full Numbers statement:

Here’s the information AT&T can share with you, based on your post-interview inquiries:

Number of lineman in California servicing copper landlines (aka wirelines) for each of the following years 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016?

Residential access lines dropped by 64%, from 11.4 million in 2006 to 4.1 million in 2013. It is necessary that the size of the workforce changes to reflect the magnitude of work needed.

AT&T has more technicians per access line than it did in 2007. In mid-2007, AT&T had an average of 4.1 technicians per 10,000 access lines. AT&T had an average of 5.7 technicians per 10,000 access lines as of mid-2013

Number of California AT&T copper landline customers for each of the following years 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

[This response pertains to all plain-old-telephone-service customers in California]

From 1999 – 2015 residential plain old telephone service (POTS) has declined an estimated 85% in California. In 2013, California consumers dropped 20% of their remaining traditional voice lines, so that only 9% of all residential voice lines in California were POTS lines. The number continues to drop at a similar rate each year.

At the same time, consumers have adopted more advanced internet- and wireless-based technologies in droves. More than 9 out of 10 Californians use a smartphone or other mobile devices, 86% use the Internet, and there are over 5.7 million VoIP subscriptions in California.

Amount of money AT&T has spent in California on copper landline maintenance in the last 10 years, broken down annually.

The landline and wireless infrastructure are interconnected, and AT&T has invested nearly $7.4 B from 2012 – 2014 in its wired and wireless networks in California to provide quality service to customers and to insure the resilience and reliability of the network.

Number of California’s AT&T customers with no option other than copper landlines?

According the National Broadband Map:
– 97.2% of Californians have access to wired internet at speeds of 3 Mbps or higher.
– 99.6% of Californians have access to wireless broadband speeds of 3 Mbps or higher.
– 99.8% of Californians have access to wireless technology.

Source: http://www.broadbandmap.gov/summarize/state/california

What is the number of cell tower sites in California?
Response:
AT&T cannot provide this, but number of towers is not the best measure of wireless coverage.

Population covered by total network in county:
El Dorado: 99.5%
Placer: 100%

Population covered by mobile broadband in county:
El Dorado: 99.5%
Placer: 100%

Population covered by 4G:
El Dorado: 99.0%
Placer: 100%

Population covered by LTE:
El Dorado: 90.2%
Placer: 98.7%

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

The average number of repairs per hundred lines in both El Dorado and Placer counties was below 2% for 2015.

Across California, AT&T restored 63% of trouble tickets within 24 hours in 2015.

In the interview, KOVR suggested that the number of AT&T technicians has declined in the Placerville region.

The number of technicians in the region has actually gone up in relation to the number of lines in use.

AT&T has more technicians per access line than it did in 2007. In mid-2007, AT&T had an average of 4.1 technicians per 10,000 access lines. AT&T had an average of 5.7 technicians per 10,000 access lines as of mid-2013.
(Data from before 2007 was not readily available.)

And it’s important to clarify that our customers’ needs dictate the transition of technology, and where our business is headed. Improved wireless service and other technologies and platforms are in demand, increasingly, as consumers’ needs and expectations for communication, information, and entertainment increase. Where copper landline service is in demand, we invest in it.

The overwhelming majority of AT&T service issues get resolved in one to two days and, quite often, in hours. Our commitment to our customers is our top priority, and more than two days for a customer’s service to be fixed is not acceptable. Incidents that take days to repair are the exception, not the rule.

There’s a common misconception that copper landline is more reliable than fiber optic cable, and that one can make calls on a landline (for weeks) while power is out, presumably unlike fiber and mobile phones.

As we saw most recently in the 2015 Butte and other regional fire disasters, both landline and wireless phones require replenished generators during those power outages. A cell tower and a landline both have potential to last forever as long as they’re getting power (from the grid or from a temporary generator).

When one cell tower goes out, it does not mean people will necessarily lose their signal. There’s densification built in, so other cell towers pick up the slack in order to serve that region, uninterrupted.

Our wireless network is very resilient, and the Butte fire is again an excellent example– Despite commercial power outages, and despite damage to much of our wireline network, AT&T technicians maintained the operation of all our wireless facilities, installing mobile power generators and refueling each on a daily basis.

Whether or not wireline service remains powered during an outage already depends on customer premise equipment installed by the customer. For example, most non-wireless customers use cordless phones which do not work at all during a power outage.

Rural service locations are the MOST likely to be prepared to have back-up/alternative service preparedness (generators, etc.)

During the interview, KOVR had information to the effect of “7 million people rely on landlines in CA.”
This figure is from 2012. Since then, more consumers have left and continue to leave traditional voice lines in favor of more advanced services. In 2012 alone, POTS lines in California decreased 13%. In 2013, California consumers dropped 20% of their remaining traditional voice lines, so that only 9% of all residential voice lines in California were POTS lines. The number continues to drop at a similar rate each year.

At the same time, consumers have adopted more advanced internet- and wireless-based technologies in droves. More than 9 out of 10 Californians use a smartphone or other mobile devices, 86 percent use the Internet, and there are over 5.7 million VoIP subscriptions in California – a number that continues to grow.

AT&T is committed to maintaining its network in order to provide all of our customers with high-quality, uninterrupted service. From 2012-2014, AT&T invested nearly $7.4 billion dollars in its wired and wireless networks in California to provide quality service to customers and to insure the resilience and reliability of the network. These investments drove a wide range of upgrades to reliability, coverage, speed and performance for residents and business customers.
Frontier’s Response:

The 2nd account noted (in Vernalis) was also customer specific, and service here has also been restored. Ms. Morelos’ service interruption was due to local flooding at the terminals. It is difficult to repair underground cable in standing water, so temporary fixes were made. Thankfully, at one of the terminal locations the water receded enough to allow us to do a permanent repair. In the second location, there is still a temporary repair in place. We have reached out to the county road crew to fix the drain issue and as soon as the standing water has been reduced we will make the permanent fix.

I hope this additional information allows you to see – and that you will agree – Frontier works diligently to provide service to every customer.

And to answer your other questions, Frontier has both copper and fiber optic lines and will continue to use and maintain both.