Should every Utahn be able to get a landline? Not anymore, says the company that sells them.

As land lines become a relic, Lumen Technologies petitions the state to release them from ‘carrier of last resort’ responsibility.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Landlines had a good run.

Even after cell phones saw widespread adoption in the 1990s, landlines continued to dominate home phone use. In 2008, more than 98% of U.S. households had a landline telephone.

Since then, it’s been all downhill. Now, that percentage is closer to 28%, and it’s still dropping.

Still, the state of Utah mandates that Utah’s “carriers of last resort” must offer landline service to every household that wants it. That requirement was seen as a matter of safety.

But now Utah’s largest carrier of last resort wants out of that responsibility.

The carrier is Lumen Technologies, a name that barely any Utahn knows. Most will know the company as CenturyLink, the brand it still uses in Utah. And before that going back to 1911, it was Qwest, USWest, Mountain Bell and Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph.

Lumen/CenturyLink has filed a petition with the Utah Public Service Commission, citing the massive decline in landline use. The company had more than 830,000 landlines in 2005. In 2022 that number had dropped to fewer than 120,000.

The company argues that the ‘carrier of last resort’ requirement is a remnant of the time when phone companies operated as monopolies and regulation was required to force them to serve all residents. Now, Utahns have voice options from multiple providers, most of which are not required to serve everyone.

“Requiring only CenturyLink to bear significant uneconomic and unrecoverable financial burdens is not sensible, distorts the marketplace, and is discriminatory,” according to the petition.

Mobile phones now dominate. The petition states that as of June 2021, 72% of voice lines were cell phones. Another 15% are Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) lines, which includes Comcast customers who have landlines bundled with their TV and internet plans.

CenturyLink had only 3.2% of voice lines, a far cry from the monopoly days of Ma Bell.

“This filing doesn’t affect our market presence and doesn’t have any bearing on other providers,” said Danielle Spears, spokesperson for Lumen. “Be assured our current customers will continue to be served by CenturyLink.”

Spears said the company serves both residential and business customers. “In order to give our customers what they want, more fiber and IP-enabled network products, we need a flexible regulatory approach that minimizes costs and promotes competition. For example, our data shows a decline in traditional landline subscribers but an appetite for more fiber. We responded by launching and expanding Quantum Fiber in Salt Lake City.”

In the early years of cell phones, landlines were seen as the safer, more reliable alternative. Calls to 911, for instance, could be traced to specific locations if they were made on landlines but not on cell phones. But improvements in technology now give 911 dispatchers location data for cell phone callers.

Landlines can also remain live even when power is out, although that only works longterm with corded phones.

Households with older people are more likely to have landlines, but even AARP isn’t sorry to see landlines go, noting that they have become more expensive and less reliable as most consumers move away from them. Call quality is clearer too, as cell phone technology progresses, AARP tells its members.

Lumen’s original request was for an informal approval process, but the PSC will give it a formal process after receiving requests from the Utah Rural Telecom Association and the Utah Office of Consumer Services for a more in-depth review. The commission has set a Jan. 18 meeting to set a schedule, which will include an opportunity for public feedback.

“Because Lumen’s petition raises an issue of first impression before the Utah Public Service Commission, URTA believes that a robust record should be developed through a formal adjudicative process to ensure policy matters are properly considered,” said Kira Slawson, attorney for Utah Rural Telecom.

The rural telecoms also act as carriers of last resort for their service areas, and they have not petitioned to drop that responsibility. That is in part because the rural telecoms can apply for federal and state funding to offset the costs of serving customers in areas that aren’t cost-efficient. Those funds come from a small “universal service charge” surcharge, that all phone customers pay, and can see included in their bills. Those funds are generally not available in the larger markets Lumen serves.