Communications and Technology

California’s Utility Regulator Forces the Private Sector to Maintain Increasingly Obsolete Landline Networks

California should lift this antiquated regulatory burden on our nation’s telecommunications sector.

While all 50 states are currently working with the federal NTIA to implement a historic $42.45 billion in taxpayer funds bringing high-speed broadband internet service to all Americans, California regulators are forcing one telecom provider to stick with outdated 20th century tech in perpetuity.

Under California law, AT&T is currently designated as a Carrier of Last Resort (COLR), meaning the company is mandated to maintain traditional copper-line telephone service in areas where there are no alternative providers of voice service. The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) rejected AT&T’s attempt to transition most of its legacy, copper-line telephone networks to contemporary broadband networks—powered by fiber and novel solutions such as Fixed Wireless Access.

Decades ago, when the technology for mobile phones and the modern internet was only beginning to get off on the right foot, the incumbent local exchange carrier was often by definition the sole provider of telephone service. In 2024, however, Californians have access to a growing number of alternatives competing with traditional voice service, including mobile networks and voice over IP (VoIP) delivered through the internet. As AT&T noted in its application to the CPUC, 99.7% of the population within its California service territory has access to at least three alternatives to landline phone service.

USA Today reported that at least 20 states have already taken steps to reform or eliminate COLR requirements, rightly pointing to data showing fewer and fewer households with landline connections. In the few remaining regions where copper landlines remain the sole option, AT&T has pledged to maintain their legacy service until modern networks are developed, ensuring no communities are left behind.

California should lift this antiquated regulatory burden on our nation’s telecommunications sector. The Legislature should keep its eye on the ball and focus on ensuring the billions in taxpayer funds earmarked for broadband are not squandered and actually reach these unserved areas.