The Ohio Senate
Testimony on Substitute House Bill 110 – State Budget
(House Provision Allowing End of Printed Phone Directories)
Larry Sauer (Deputy Director), Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel
Susan Jagers (Director), Ohio Poverty Law Center
Michael Walters (Attorney), Pro Seniors, Inc.
May 5, 2021
Hello Chair Schaffer, Vice Chair Wilson, Ranking Member Craig and Members of the Committee. We hope you and your colleagues are well. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.
We ask that the Senate remove from Sub. House Bill 110 certain anti-consumer language inserted (apparently with AT&T and/or phone industry support) at the end of the process in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the language overturns a PUCO decision that, in a compromise of competing interests, last year protected basic landline telephone consumers from a similar proposal by AT&T to end printed phone directories. AT&T apparently does not like the PUCO’s decision which adopted some of our and others’ recommendations.
The House provision would allow telephone companies to deny basic telephone consumers a printed telephone directory. The language is on lines 50880 - 50887 in the House-passed bill. LSC describes this purpose on pages 333-334 of its Bill Analysis dated April 23, 2021.
Attached is an LSC amendment (SC2251). Respectfully, we ask that you use the amendment to remove the language from the House-passed bill and to protect consumers.
This phone issue has no connection to the state budget. Further, we are not aware of House testimony by phone companies to support or justify it in the public domain. Given its late addition to the House bill, there was not time for us to learn of it and testify against it in the House.
For context, we are: the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the statutory representative of millions of Ohio residential utility consumers; the Ohio Poverty Law Center, which works to reduce poverty and increase justice by protecting the legal rights of Ohioans living in poverty; and Pro Seniors, Inc., which is a non-profit legal service provider in Cincinnati that works to expand economic opportunities and improve the quality of life for senior residents of Ohio.
The printed telephone directory is an important resource to make available to basic landline phone service consumers. It includes residential and commercial customers’ telephone numbers. And it also provides consumers with emergency numbers including 9-1-1, the local police and fire departments, the county sheriff, the Ohio relay service, operator service and directory assistance.
In its ruling in Case 20-1139,1 the PUCO reached a compromise decision that generally agreed with the advocacy of the consumer groups. The ruling is attached. The PUCO concluded that AT&T failed to demonstrate that customers have a reasonable alternative source for directory information. The PUCO found that online alternatives are not viable substitutes for the printed physical directory.2 The PUCO also noted that AT&T’s proposal for use of the toll-free number (1- 800-FREE411) for directory assistance is not a comparable alternative to the residential directory (White Pages) due to the additional time required to listen to advertising prior to receiving the desired listing.3 We note that many Ohio consumers, including consumers in rural areas, may lack broadband service to use for online directory service.
The PUCO ordered that, for AT&T to be granted the waiver, AT&T would have to provide basic telephone customers with local directory assistance that does not contain advertising and that consumers can access from their landline phone at no charge. Notably, AT&T apparently declined to offer that option to consumers. And thus AT&T’s obligation to provide consumers with printed directories will continue at no cost for consumers.
But the House provision now would allow AT&T an end-run around the PUCO’s compromise decision. And that would be bad for the consumers that the PUCO protected.
We note that, in December 2018, AT&T and the phone companies benefited from legislation when they obtained broad authority in House Bill 402 for raising consumers’ phone bills. AT&T partly defended that legislation (in its December 6, 2018 Senate testimony) by noting that service quality standards would be preserved for consumers. AT&T (Jon Kelly) testified (on page 4 of their Senate testimony) that: “In an important concession made by the industry in the House, the language that would have repealed the service quality standards for BLES was removed.”
In fact, service quality for consumers is served by the availability of printed phone directories. AT&T, having obtained its desired price-increase discretion over consumer opposition in H.B. 402, should not now be allowed to follow up with legislation that also impairs service quality by denying phone directories for basic service consumers.
Respectfully, the Senate should reject any effort by AT&T (and by other telephone companies) to use the unrelated budget bill to overturn the PUCO’s compromise ruling on this consumer issue. The issue was vetted at the PUCO in a process that included AT&T and consumer advocates from around Ohio. We urge the Committee to remove this anti-consumer provision from the budget bill where the issue does not even belong.
That concludes our testimony. Thank you for your consideration.
1 PUCO Case 20-1139-TP-WVR, Entry (October 7, 2020).
2 Entry at 5-6.