AT&T may be flexing its lobbying muscle in next year's Indiana General Assembly session to put one of the finishing touches on telecommunications deregulation in the state and to limit the reach of a university consortium's super-high-speed fiber optic network.
AT&T within its traditional franchise territories remains a "carrier of last resort" under state regulations, which mandates it provide service to all rural customers no matter what the cost, AT&T Indiana President George Fleetwood said.
The requirement is one of the last vestiges of telecom regulation in the state, which became largely deregulated under a bill that won approval in the General Assembly five years ago.
Fleetwood argued in briefings with region news outlets Thursday that customers in far-flung rural areas now have a number of options when it comes to telephone and Internet service.
"We just believe there are enough alternatives out there today," Fleetwood said. "And I'm not saying we will abandon anyone. We won't be ripping lines out of people's homes."
The Indiana Telecommunications Association will be involved in formulating legislation on the carrier-of-last-resort issue, association President John Koppin said.
He acknowledged there may have to be some provision made if there are isolated pockets left in Indiana where residents truly don't have a choice. Allowing state regulators to pick one carrier for that area or putting all such areas up for bid as a block may be possible solutions, Koppin said.
The second item on AT&T's legislative to-do list involves the I-Light network run by Indiana University, with more than three dozen Indiana colleges and universities as members. The super-high-speed fiber optic network can transmit huge bundles of data at speeds of up to 10 gigabit.
It started as a network to connect colleges and universities involved in data-intensive research but is expanding its outreach to schools, hospitals, government and even businesses, Fleetwood said.
He argued that outreach represents unfair competition for AT&T and other telecom providers because as a university-based system it receives state subsidies and tax exemptions.
"We are saying they can carry the traffic they are carrying, but let's not have mission creep," Fleetwood said.
I-Light is in fact just one small part of a larger push by educational institutions nationwide to serve a broader base of customers with their high-speed networks, Koppin said. It's a fuzzy area because it can be argued that institutions such as hospitals and even prominent drugmakers have an educational role.
But the telecom industry cannot afford to let a giant segment of the high-speed data market go to state-sponsored networks if the industry is to thrive and grow, Koppin said.