FCC Proposal: Phone Companies Need To Offer Backup Power, Actually Notify You If They Kill Off Your Copper-Wire Landline

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is introducing a new proposal to the commission today that would attempt to protect consumers’ interests while advancing the transition away from plain old copper-wire service and onto IP data networks.

The FCC gave the green light to some pilot programs for the IP transition (where service transitions to the internet protocol) in January, 2014 and in November, 2014 kicked off the rulemaking process to put some consumer protections in place as that transition goes forward.

Landline companies are, in general, more than happy to get out of the copper wire business as soon as possible. Accusations abound that Verizon, in particular, has been neglecting maintenance to hasten the transition, preferring to push customers to FiOS. In recent weeks, that impatience has manifested in direct communications to customers threatening to cut off their service entirely if they don’t make the switch.

Wheeler is circulating two different orders to his fellow commissioners this week that will, if adopted, formally create those consumer protections during the transition.

When The Lights Go Out
The first Report and Order deals very specifically with one of consumers’ largest concerns about abandoning copper-wire phone service: Old tech still works in a power outage, allowing you to make emergency calls. New tech does not.

To resolve that, the FCC’s new rule would require phone providers to offer a backup power source (i.e. a battery) that would last for at least 8 hours to consumers when they sign up for service. Within three years, phone companies would also be required to offer a power source good for 24 hours or more of standby backup power.

Businesses are allowed to charge as they will for that backup power source, but consumers would not be required to buy the backup power. The FCC fact sheet frames this as “promoting consumer choice,” but a senior FCC official also explained it as a cost containment measure. Allowing businesses to recoup the costs by passing them through to consumers should, in theory, keep the cost of service plans lower across the board.

The rule would not only require providers to make backup power available, but also would require them to inform both existing and new customers about how services would be limited during power outages and to provide information about how to access service during a multi-day power outage.

The other proposed rule is also all about transparency and notification.

Knowing What You’re Plugged In To
The second Report and Order addresses those accusations of neglect and nasty letters to consumers.

A company that can provide 100% equivalent levels of service to its copper-wire service using another technology — fiber optics, coaxial cable, fixed wireless systems, whatever — is allowed to turn off its copper-wire service and replace it with the new tech without first seeking permission from the FCC under Sec. 214 of the Communications Act. But under the new rule, they would not be allowed to do so without first actively notifying their customers.

The new rule would mandate that telephone companies notify their customers well in advance of any plans to retire local area copper networks. Residential customers would have to receive three months’ notice, and non-residential customers (businesses, schools, and so on) would get the heads’ up six months before the switch.

The notification process would, in part, force telephone companies actually to retire their copper-wire networks specifically by choice and at a pre-announced time, rather than simply neglecting them until they fall apart and forcing customers to make a move then.

As long as they meet the notification requirements, including to interconnecting carriers, companies that can transition to new tech without discontinuing, reducing, or impairing service can carry on.

Competition and Consumer Needs
The proposed rule also centers on the FCC’s mandate to promote competition wherever possible. The proposal is most concerned with the enterprise market and special access services: businesses, governments, schools, libraries, hospitals, and the like.

The new rule proposes that, for the time being and specifically as an interim measure, any telecom company that drops copper wire service to those institutions has to provide their new service at “rates, terms, and conditions that are reasonably comparable” to the old service. That means they can’t just jack up prices to schools and libraries when they switch technology. A separate proceeding, to figure out how to deal with special access services, is also underway at the FCC. That proceeding, when concluded, would end the interim measure and replace it with a new, permanent rule of some kind.

The new rule would also kick off a proceeding to clarify what, exactly, “discontinuing, reducing, or impairing” a service actually means legally, since it is the standard to which providers are held when transitioning without seeking prior approval. If adopted, the rule would kick off a public comment period asking for input.

The FCC has a fact sheet and blog post about the proposals available, and the commission will be discussing and voting on these proposals at their August 6 open meeting.