Why AARP Wants to Keep Landlines Dialing in Rural Areas

The major association for retired Americans has been working to fight legislation designed to end subsidized landline service in rural areas around the country. But as a recent saga in Maine proved, the association isn't above compromise.

In the age of always-on smartphones and VOIP, landlines are often treated as a second-class citizen. And in some parts of the country, phone providers want to be freed of their requirement to offer landline service to customers.

Problem is, some people aren’t ready to give up that service—so AARP is stepping in to help those in need. In recent years, the association has raised concerns about efforts by phone companies to stop offering landline access to rural areas.

“The nearly ubiquitous use of mobile phones has made landlines unnecessary for many Americans,” AARP’s Pennsylvania chapter wrote of the issue last November. “But that’s not an option for residents of rural areas where cellphone service is spotty.”

While AARP is concerned about the risks raised by the wind down of landline service in rural areas, it has shown flexibility in one case. A recent opposition effort led by AARP’s Maine chapter gave way after the group agreed to compromise on the issue.

The association, which had warned legislators that landline support was “a complex and critical issue,” ended up coming around at the end of March, after finding that deregulation efforts involving FairPoint Communications balanced out AARP members’ needs with the expensive realities of running landline service.

What are those realities? In comments to the Bangor Daily News in February, Telecommunications Association of Maine Executive Director Ben Sanborn noted that FairPoint’s rural service was once subsidized by profits in larger cities—profits that are now going away as people drop their landlines, creating problems for FairPoint.

The bill, which was signed by Gov. Paul LePage last week, contains a number of consumer protections, including additional price controls for voice service in certain areas. While FairPoint will be allowed to end its service in some larger cities within the state, other parts of the state will continue to fall under regulatory requirements.

“I really think this to be the best deregulation bill I have seen in terms of consumer protection,” AARP’s Amy Gallant said in comments to The Associated Press last month.

While concerns about the bill linger (the AP highlights the story of Peter Froehlich, a 70-year-old Maine resident who worries that he’ll have no way to reach the outside world from his rural home), AARP admitted to the wire service that the tide of technology might eventually force its hand, though the association’s strategy in Maine may help make the transition a little less painful.

“We do suspect this is the beginning of the end of landline phones,” Gallant told the AP this week.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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