We depend on phones to run the basics of our everyday lives, stay connected to family and friends, and call 911 in an emergency. In the past year, many people have relied on their phones to work from home and keep their jobs during the pandemic.
Now, with just three sentences, the Minnesota Senate would make it harder for many people to stay safe and connected.
A bill supported by the majority in the Minnesota Senate, called the “energy omnibus bill,” includes a three-sentence change that would remove critical consumer protections that have long ensured that all Minnesotans have access to basic phone service. Importantly, this basic service includes landlines, which people and small businesses in some parts of Minnesota must rely on to meet their basic needs and get ahead.
This is especially true in northern and western Minnesota, where mobile and wireless services can be spotty or unavailable. If the Senate removes these protections, people and businesses across Minnesota who rely the most on landline service would be hit hard. Senior citizens, who also rely on landlines more than others, would be hit hard, too.
So what are these important protections? Minnesota has long had an “obligation to serve” requirement for phone companies, which is a bedrock requirement of telephone regulation. This ensures that all Minnesotans currently have access to this basic communication necessity. But the Senate’s proposal would eliminate those protections from state law. This means phone companies could stop serving sparsely populated areas, which are less profitable to them, because there would be no obligation under the law to serve those areas anymore.
Despite the technology revolution of cell phones and high-speed internet, also known as broadband, not every part of the state has access to reliable cell phone coverage or broadband.
Close to 1 million Minnesota customers — families and businesses both — depend on traditional landline phones. Cities use landline phone infrastructure to reach city residents and enable basic services like fire alarms and meter reading. Small businesses need landlines to sell goods and services and create jobs. There are 18 counties in Minnesota where more than 60% of households have landline service. Some people have no way to get through to 911 without a landline. For older Minnesotans and those with medical conditions, their health can depend on a reliable phone line. If you have a heart attack, driving 15 minutes to get to a place where your cell phone works is not an option.
Proponents of the Senate majority’s bill make vague promises that eliminating the “obligation to serve” would enable broadband development. We’re skeptical, and you should be, too. We all support broadband deployment across Minnesota. This bill does nothing to encourage investment in broadband, nor does it invest in broadband infrastructure. It simply makes it easier for companies to stop providing telephone service to customers who cost them more to serve.
Every Minnesotan needs to be able to call 911. Every Minnesotan needs to stay connected to their family, friends, and community. And Minnesota businesses need telephones to do business.
Should where you live or how old you are determine if you’re left out of our economy, left behind in our society, and left to fend for yourself in an emergency? No.
The Minnesota Senate should put protecting our seniors and folks in Greater Minnesota ahead of protecting phone companies’ profits.
Keith Ellison is Minnesota attorney general. Grace Arnold is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce. They wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune. The commentary is also supported by AARP Minnesota, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (greatermncities.org), and the Legal Services Advocacy Project (mylegalaid.org).