In 2010, the members of the Ohio legislature will consider a bill that allows telephone companies to raise rates and significantly reduce or eliminate critical consumer protections.

In 2010, the members of the Ohio legislature will consider a bill that allows telephone companies to raise rates and significantly reduce or eliminate critical consumer protections.

In today's tough economic times, the last things Ohioans need are higher utility bills. The legislation is moving and it is important that consumers take action by making their voices heard.

Lawmakers should strengthen Amended Substitute Senate Bill 162 and Amended House Bill 276 to protect their constituents from unnecessary rate increases and substantially fewer consumer protections. This legislation, which is pushed by Ohio's major telephone companies, would deregulate basic telephone service rates.

Along with more than 50 other consumer, senior and low-income groups, the OCC asked lawmakers to protect Ohioans from the rate increases that will likely result from the legislation. Both bills allow telephone companies to raise by $1.25 their monthly rates for basic local telephone service once every year, indefinitely.

In some areas of the state, there is no cell service or broadband, and only one provider of landline telephone service.

Some Ohioans could face telephone rate increases of up to 20 to 40 percent over the next few years in areas that lack real competition.

Lawmakers should not eliminate or weaken essential telephone consumer protections. The legislation removes the current Minimum Telephone Service Standards, a set of rules and consumer protections for all customers, and replaces them with weaker laws.

While all customers today have the same consumer protections, the proposed law divides customers into two classes. Those with basic service will still receive some consumer protections, although fewer then those currently in place. However, the majority of customers -- those receiving service as part of a bundle or package of telecommunication services --will experience a radical reduction in consumer protections. They will be left with only minimal protections from unfair or deceptive telephone company practices.

In these times, telephone service is a necessity. Yet this bill would jeopardize the ability of consumers, including senior citizens, the disabled and those with serious medical conditions, to have needed access to the outside world and 911 emergency services.

The proposed changes in consumer protections also could lower telephone service quality. For example, telephone companies are required to fix outages within 24 hours. The legislation would allow telephone companies to take up to 72 hours to restore an outage for customers with basic service.

This legislation would affect thousands of Ohio's low-income consumers in a particularly negative way by reducing the effectiveness of the Lifeline benefit program. The proposed legislation allows Lifeline customers' rates to increase every year, indefinitely, significantly reducing the overall benefit of the program, creating greater stress and difficulty for Ohio's most vulnerable citizens. The low-income Lifeline benefit program should be restored to its current operation.

The Office of the Ohio Consum-ers' Counsel urges consumers to contact their legislators and let them know the importance of keeping basic telephone rates affordable and maintaining consumer protections for phone services.

Janine Migden Ostrander is Ohio Consumers' Counsel.

Janine Migden Ostrander