County opposes Senate bill to cut landline phone service

MARQUETTE – The Marquette County Board voted unanimously at last week’s meeting to draft a resolution opposing a state Senate bill that would allow telephone companies to eliminate landline service with 90 days notice after 2016.

“There’s a lot of areas in Marquette County and the U.P. and the state of Michigan, for that matter, that don’t have cellphone service,” Commissioner Bruce Heikkila said. “And what this bill would allow them to do is just, with a 90-day notice, basically discontinue landline service, if they want to.”

The board will send a copy of the resolution to the Michigan Association of Counties and state lawmakers representing the region, hoping for their support against Section 313 of Senate Bill 636, which was introduced in October by state Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek.

The bill – which also includes other provisions – reported favorably Wednesday out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Technology, with immediate effect recommended. The bill is now moving to a committee of the whole, with a substitution.

Major telephone companies support the bill because landline use has dropped precipitously in recent years, with customers moving to cellphone use. Those providers argue the clear trend is toward cellphones and other technology for the future and maintaining both landline and cellphone services is increasingly becoming cost prohibitive. Cable-provided phone service use has also increased.

“Basically, what they’re trying to do is get into cellphone service,” Heikkila said. “But there’s a lot of elderly people, there’s a lot of people in rural areas that don’t have cell service. I’ve been in many areas up here that have no cell service. It would be a real detriment for this area.”

Heikkila said he believes the phone companies and Nofs are acting prematurely.

“I think they’re way ahead of themselves to try to get something like this right now,” Heikkila said. “And I am just totally against it.”

On his website, Nofs said he “is working on this legislation in response to, and advance of, coming changes in Federal Communications Commission requirements.”

Board Chairman Gerald Corkin told Heikkila: “Certainly, when you live in a rural area, some of your points are well-taken.”

Other entities, including AARP Michigan, oppose the law’s provisions saying many older residents rely on landline service and there are many places without reliable cellphone coverage.

A recent unscientific online poll of 1,323 AARP Michigan members and others showed “an overwhelming majority have landline service and want to keep it, even though they also have wireless phone service.”

The November survey found 85 percent of respondents currently have landline service, 80 percent were satisfied with that service, 84 percent also had cellular or wireless phone service, 83 percent said they did not anticipate discontinuing their landline service over the next year and 97 percent said they opposed the Senate legislation.

Commissioner Gregory Seppanen affirmed the problems with cellphone coverage.

“We have a lot of holes even in some of the more populated areas,” Seppanen said. “Chocolay has huge holes in it. I don’t get cell service at my house and I live literally right in Harvey, simply because of topography. On the west end, (of the county) I would imagine you have the same thing.”

Seppanen said he hoped the county’s resolution could be sent to Marquette County Central Dispatch officials for their comments.

“We have a large portion of our population that will only be able to get emergency services off of a landline because they live in areas that have no cell service,” Seppanen said.

Commissioner Deborah Pellow said her mother just turned 84 years old and lives in the county.

“The elderly really don’t, a lot of them, do not like cellphones,” Pellow said. “They don’t know how to deal with them. They don’t like them. They’re familiar with a landline.”

Pellow suggested senior centers may want to send letters in opposition to the bill.

In an interview posted on his website this week, Nofs dispelled false claims his bill intended to advance telecommunication technology will disable the ability of those with landlines to make 911 emergency calls.

He said phone companies could not discontinue landline service until 2017, but even after that, “you’ve got to have a reliable system out there so people can call 911.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.