Ohio Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee
Opponent Testimony on Sub. House Bill 430
(Opposing Amendment 3127 Affecting Phone Consumers)
Ellis Jacobs, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc.
Jeff Jacobson, Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel
Susan Jagers, Ohio Poverty Law Center
Michael Walters, Pro Seniors, Inc.
May 31, 2022
Hello Chair McColley, Vice-Chair Schuring, Ranking Member Williams, and Committee members. We hope you and your colleagues are well.
The Consumer Groups thank you for the opportunity to testify in opposition to this legislation. With the Committee’s adoption of Amendment 3127 (attached) on May 24, 2022, HB430 has a new subject. The new subject is phone company abandonment and withdrawal of consumers’ telephone basic local exchange service. The legislation with this amendment will undercut consumer protections ordered by the PUCO as recently as May 18, 2022, in Case 14-1554.
The following are the Consumer Groups joining in this testimony. Advocates for Basic Legal Equality is a nonprofit public interest law firm that represents low-income people in 33 Ohio counties. The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel represents the interests of millions of Ohio consumers regarding their electric, natural gas, telephone, and water utility services. The Ohio Poverty Law Center works to reduce poverty and increase justice by protecting and expanding the legal rights of all Ohioans living, working, and raising their families in poverty. Pro Seniors, Inc. is a non-profit legal services provider located in Cincinnati, Ohio that works to expand economic opportunities and improve the quality of life for senior residents of Ohio. For your convenience, this testimony is being submitted jointly by each organization. The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel is presenting its testimony in person by Mr. Jacobson, who is speaking only for the Consumers’ Counsel. The other groups are submitting their joint testimony as written only.
Our recommendation is to remove Amendment 3127 from HB430. The language of Amendment 3127 is anti-consumer. It’s anti-consumer because it will prohibit the PUCO from “impos[ing] ... any notice requirement, withdrawal or abandonment restrictions, buildout requirements, or any other regulatory requirement or restriction that is not generally applicable to the service or the provider in other contexts." (Emphasis added.) But the PUCO should not be prohibited from implementing these consumer protections. The PUCO properly interpreted existing law, such as O.R.C. 4927.10(B), in imposing some of these consumer protection measures that the bill would prohibit. Consumers need the protections. During this Committee’s May 24, 2022 meeting, it was said that Amendment 3127 is needed to clarify the law and resolve the “drawn-out” rulemaking process at the PUCO and JCARR. If there is to be any clarification of existing law, please change existing law to clarify that the consumer protections adopted by the PUCO are appropriate. Please do not clarify the law in favor of the telephone industry’s anti-consumer positions, as has been done in Amendment 3127.
Apparently, the impetus for Amendment 3127 may be the phone industry’s opposition to the PUCO’s proposed rule 4901:1-06-21. The proposed rule allows for the PUCO to require consumer protections when a phone company seeks to withdraw basic phone service. “Basic service” is plain telephone service without a lot of extra features. It allows customers and their families unlimited calls within their local community for a flat rate and access to long-distance service and 9-1-1 emergency service. Basic phone service, unlike some VoIP services, can continue to work for consumers even during electrical outages. The service is a low-cost way to maintain contacts with family, friends, doctors, schools, places of worship, and emergency services.
The current law that the legislature enacted has been very favorable for the telephone industry and its requests for limiting regulation as competition grows. But phone competition is not sufficiently effective everywhere in Ohio for all Ohioans. In O.R.C. 4927.10(B), the legislature established a standard that adequate phone service alternatives must be “reasonable and comparatively priced voice service” to what the phone company would withdraw. The PUCO has sought to give Ohio families the protection of that standard. The Committee should not undercut this protection with Amendment 3127. A source of the law at issue, House Bill 402 in 2019, required the PUCO to submit a report to the Ohio General Assembly. The report was to identify the total number of Basic Local Exchange Service (BLES) lines as of November 1, 2021, the pricing of basic phone service and more. The PUCO submitted the report. Four consumer groups then filed joint comments in response to the PUCO’s report, in Case 19-173. Our comments are attached, which include section IV on vulnerable Ohioans.
The report is another reason why the Committee should reject Amendment 3127 and language like it. If such legislation is to be considered, then it should at least be considered in a stand-alone bill along with the PUCO’s legislatively required report that relates to it. Please don’t adopt this new subject for HB430 at the last hour. And please don’t do so in a bill that already passed the House where it was about underground utility facilities and Ohio Work Zone Safety Awareness Month.
In Ohio there remain about 360,000 consumers, their families and others using the most basic local telephone service. Consumers using this basic service can include, among others, seniors on fixed incomes who are saving money and rural consumers who do not have reliable access to a cellphone signal. There are many at-risk Ohioans who need such low-cost services due to poverty or the working poor, pandemic-related financial difficulties, inflation, and soaring energy prices. Please do not deny them the regulatory protections of the PUCO.
Thank you for your consideration.