Modern Phone Technologies Require Modern Consumer Protections

by Regina Costa,  TURN Telecom Director—-As telecom networks move to shiny new technologies, (and grow their profits enormously) the essential core values of public safety, universal access, competitive choice and consumer protection must be preserved. 

The FCC today launched two rulemakings intended to ensure consumer protection, public safety and customers’ right to choose reliable phone service that functions during power outages.  TURN and our allies, including Washington D.C. based Public Knowledge, had urged the FCC to take steps to make sure no customers are left behind as phone companies push to replace their reliable copper networks with less dependable fiber and cable ones.  The FCC agreed with consumer groups that customers- including customers who choose to keep their landlines must have:

-Protections against phone companies discontinuing services that actual customers actually depend on absent a showing that comparable alternative is readily available.
-Reliable, dependable access to 911 in power outages, including for customers who transition to cable or fiber based services that rely on back up power for their phones.

That opens the way for us to expand on what we’ve won in California on a national level. TURN has had some success in requiring fiber and Internet phone providers to notify customers in California of the need for back-up power in an emergency. Today’s FCC ruling opens the way for even stronger protections. This issue came to light during Hurricane Sandy last year, when there were power outages up and down the east coast. Those good old copper landlines mostly worked fine despite downed power lines, but fiber and cable customers quickly realized, if they hadn’t already, that they couldn’t call 911- or anyone else- when the electricity was out.  The FCC will:

  1. Seek comment on different back-up power technologies and solutions in the marketplace today.
  2. Examine potential strategies for providing back-up power during lengthy commercial power failures.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Verizon tried to force customers whose copper wires had been damaged onto its unreliable, Internet-based Voicelink service, a very poor substitute for the top-notch quality and reliability provided by a landline. That unleashed a slew of complaints from dissatisfied consumers and the state’s Attorney General. Under pressure, Verizon backed down. Here in California complaints from consumers and Verizon employees about customers being cut off from reliable copper and forced onto less reliable fiber and Internet-services spurred TURN to seek a halt to the practice.

The FCC acknowledged that our concerns are justified. In its new rulemaking on transitions, the Commission will consider:

–Greater transparency, consumer protections, and opportunities for consumer input when carriers are planning to shut down (or “retire”) their existing copper networks.

–Begin a process to ensure that new services meet the needs of consumers before carriers are allowed to remove legacy services from the marketplace

–Ask for facts and data about whether carriers are, in effect, retiring copper networks without giving notice simply by failing to maintain them.

–Investigate allegations that carriers are not being clear with consumers about the options available when the copper network is shut down.

FCC Chair Tom Wheeler appears ready to act on these vital public protections.   In a recent blog post he said “Technology transitions will be speeded by technology-neutral rules that promote, preserve and protect the enduring values that consumers have rightly come to expect, and chief among them is the ability to reach emergency responders and the ability to choose products and services…Technology must improve; these values must be protected, these items demonstrate how both can go hand-in-hand.”