Telecom redlining, tin can telephoneLast month, Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley) introduced AB 2395, an industry-backed bill that tries to move California from our traditional copper telephone system to an all internet-based phone system. The premise of the bill is that many of us – myself included – don’t use old school landlines any more. We get our phone service in our pockets via wireless or we get VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), typically from our cable or internet provider. Therefore, the story goes, it should be ok to force everyone who’s still using traditional phone service to do the same thing I’ve chosen to do.

Here’s the kicker. The old school phone network is required by law to be there when you need it. It is built out to every customer in California (millions of whom still use it), it’s designed to be affordable for everyone, the call quality is good, and it works when the power goes out. Wireless and VoIP? Not so much. Thanks to another industry-backed bill in 2012, California is not allowed to guarantee that these new technologies work well, work everywhere, or work in an extended emergency. Not exactly a sound public safety proposition for a state prone to earthquakes and wildfires….

If this bill passes as written, carriers will pick and choose where to offer service. Those of us who live in urban or suburban areas (like Silicon Valley, for example) and who can pay higher prices for service will continue to have options. You never know, carriers may even continue to offer old school landlines here, if they think it will be profitable. But for rural customers and low income customers, this “modernization” bill could actually end up knocking communications capabilities back several decades, by forcing them onto a network that costs more and delivers less.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Asm. Low needs to check his telecom privilege. Those of us who have chosen to switch away from old school phone service, for whatever reason, should not be forcing others to do the same, especially when “modern” service doesn’t work as well as the old school version. (Anyone who has tried to be on a conference call with a bunch of people on cell phones that cut in and out knows exactly what I’m talking about here.)

If we’re going to do this, let’s really do this. Real modernization of our communications network shouldn’t sacrifice quality, reliability, affordability, and universal service just so that we can change out the technology by which service is provided. Where carriers can guarantee that “modern” service will work as well as old school service, they should provide it to everyone at an affordable price. Where they can’t make that guarantee, they should keep the service that does work, until the technology improves and becomes truly a substitute, not a downgrade. Leaving millions of customers with unaffordable, unreliable, unworkable phone service isn’t modernization, its telecom redlining. We can – and must – do better for California.