Why is AT&T ending discounts for low-income customers with landline phones?

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I want to give your readers an update on the latest move by AT&T to push people off the traditional home phone service they have relied upon for decades. This past Sept, we began to field calls from worried landline customers, including seniors on fixed incomes, who were among an estimated 5,300 customers to receive a letter from AT&T with the blunt headline: “Your Lifeline discount ends November 20, 2018.” The letter referred to the federal Lifeline program, which offers a monthly credit of up to $11.75 for qualifying low-income customers.

In 2017, the Illinois General Assembly voted, over opposition by the Citizens Utility Board, to give AT&T the right to end landline phone service in the state. But first, the company needs Federal Communications Commission approval. AT&T has not yet sought that approval and said in 2017 it could be years before landline service ends. “Traditional landline phone service from AT&T is not going away anytime soon,” the phone giant said. “No one will be left behind. We value our customers, and we want to keep them.” So if AT&T is obligated to offer landline service and it truly does value its customers, then why is it kicking customers who need that service most off its network?

The AT&T letter outlines the choices for customers: Stay with AT&T landline service, but without the credit, or seek another carrier that participates in Lifeline. The problem is, most of those carriers are wireless companies. Cellphones are not a perfect substitute for landlines, until 911 systems are fully upgraded across Illinois. Currently, 911 operators can’t always pinpoint the location of an emergency call from a cellphone, as they can a call from a landline. CUB will do everything it can to challenge AT&T whenever it goes before the FCC to end landline service. In the meantime, we call on AT&T to reinstate the Lifeline discount immediately.  Kicking low-income consumers off its network is not a good look for AT&T.

[Bryan McDaniel is director of governmental affairs at Citizens Utility Board]


Why is AT&T ending discounts for low-income customers with landline phones?