Foster Campbell

Louisiana Public Service Commissioner

BAD TRADE: PSC Cancels the Phone Book And Gets Nothing in Return

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It’s sad but true: In politics today compromise has become a dirty word. Yet few issues are so clear that there is no room for compromise. At the Public Service Commission, even the tiniest adjustment in electric, gas or telephone rates can mean millions of dollars to the monopoly utility companies and their captive customers. I work to reach agreements that are fair to consumers and to the utilities as well.

But getting to a fair deal is not easy when you’re dealing with multimillion-dollar corporations seeking to maximize shareholder return.
Last month the commission was out-traded by AT&T. The issue was a proposal to repeal a long-held requirement of the PSC’s universal service order on telephones: that companies each year distribute a free white-pages residential directory to their customers. Four commissioners voted to repeal the directory mandate. I was the lone holdout for the phone book. The proposal was initiated by District 1 Commissioner Eric Skrmetta of Metairie, supported by AT&T and the other local telephone providers. Among the companies only AT&T said it intends to act on the repeal of the directory requirement, starting in its two largest markets: New Orleans and Baton Rouge. CenturyLink and the other smaller phone companies said they had no intention of ending residential white-pages directories. They said they merely wanted the option to do so.

AT&T said it has no plans “at this time” to end the universal distribution of white-pages directories outside New Orleans and Baton Rouge. And even in those two cities any customer who requests a directory will get one free of charge – the so-called “opt-in” plan for consumers. The company made it clear it wanted the option to end universal distribution of phone books statewide, and would exercise that option when it chooses. Proponents said the money spent to print and distribute telephone books could be better spent on expansion of wireless voice and Internet service in rural areas. I strongly support spreading rural cellular coverage and access to high-speed Internet service, but this takes money.

AT&T argued that the number of Louisiana residents with a landline telephone has declined “drastically” – nearly 50 percent in the 10-year period ending in 2010. They said the PSC’s requirement of universal white-pages distribution each year was “archaic” in today’s world of Smartphones and online number searches.

My problem is that I represent 24 parishes and nearly 1 million people, many of whom live in rural areas lacking access to high-speed Internet and adequate wireless coverage. Taking phone books away from these people would be as popular as taking a Smartphone from a Captain Shreve High School senior. Even if you agree that doing away with phone books will free up money to spend on cellular networks and Internet expansion, how much money are we talking about? Like other phone companies proposing to end the white pages across the United States, AT&T Louisiana simply refused to disclose how much money it would save by eliminating universal directory distribution. How can I tell AT&T customers I am getting them a better deal by diverting phone-book resources to wireless and broadband coverage if I don’t know how much money will be saved? All I got for my repeated questioning of AT&T, verbally and in writing, was a vague pledge to work with the commission in the future to document the decline of directory printing.

Since the PSC voted 4-1 on May 23rd to eliminate the white pages I have heard from a number of constituents. The phone book is a fixture of many Louisiana households. People keep it handy and write in its margins the numbers of family, friends, the sheriff, the doctor, the ambulance and other important contacts. Eliminating this basic feature of universal service without gaining something in return is a breach of faith with the public we serve. And because it was pushed by AT&T, which generates far more telecom complaints to my office than any other company, the decision is that much tougher to swallow. As I said during the discussion last month, AT&T’s service is “up for debate.”

The goal of a utility regulator is good service to the public at the lowest reasonable cost. Achieving that goal requires balancing the needs of consumers with the interests of private companies supplying the service. In other words, negotiating a fair trade. In the case of the white pages, the Public Service Commission got out-traded.