The age of copper is over. Or at least, the nation’s biggest telephone legacy landline carriers really want it to be. And the FCC is okay with that — as long as companies stick to a few new consumer protection rules that the commission voted on today.
The FCC announced the proposal in June, and voted 3-2 today to adopt it.
The new rule requires the owners of copper-wire networks to directly notify their retail (non-wholesale) customers of plans to kill those networks at least three months in advance. That’s designed to make incumbent carriers upgrade with intention, instead of just not doing repairs. Interconnecting carriers and wholesale customers — basically, those competitors who offer their own service but over Verizon’s wires — get at least six months of notice.
The rule does not require businesses to seek permission from the FCC to rip out their copper and replace it with fiber, so long as the same level of service is available to all customers after the swap is done.
As usual, each of the commissioners took it in turn to deliver his or her opinion on the matter before voting. During her remarks, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who voted in favor of the proceeding, pointed out that we have an existing model to look at for how major tech transitions get rolled out and communicated: the digital TV transition of 2009.
“With the DTV transition, the government invested billions of dollars for consumer education campaigns,” Clyburn pointed out. “You almost had to live under a rock not to know that the DTV transition was coming. And all of this work was done for an estimated 16-19 million households that did not subscribe to pay-TV, because the number one goal was for no-one to be left behind.”
Clyburn continued by pointing out that about 50% of all residential telephone connections — 37 million lines — still remain on legacy (copper) tech. “Many of these consumers are harder to reach,” she added. “They’re elderly, and many of them lack broadband at home. And while I sincerely appreciate the chairman adding clarifications and encouraging providers to do more to ensure that consumers are informed and understand the impact of any change, I still fear that the hardest-to-reach consumers that remain on legacy technology may remain unaware or ill-prepared for this transition. Especially if carriers are only required to notify them through, and I quote, ‘one neutral statement.'”
“We all benefit if consumers understand and are ready for change,” she concluded.
Commissioner Ajit Pai took a darker view of the proceedings, finding most of the FCC’s rule entirely unnecessary. “It appears that Chicken Little rules the roost,” he began.
“As I warned nine months ago, when we commenced this proceeding, lobbyists are claiming that the sky will fall if fresh fiber replaces aging twisted pairs of copper. Ironically,” he continued, “these are the same lobbyists that lambaste bottlenecks in the broadband marketplace, who lecture us that broadband means fiber delivered at 25 Mbps connectivity, and who lament wireline transactions that they believe will delay fiber deployment.”
“The order tacks three months of delay onto the copper retirement process, slowing down fiber deployment,” Pai complained. “And the order tells companies to spend more capital maintaining the legacy copper plant, even when fiber can cure any failures of that fading infrastructure.” “The American people aren’t asking Washington to slow rather than expedite the availability of high-speed broadband throughout our nation. They demand faster deployment, more competition, better service. They ask when their homes are going to be connected with next-generation fiber, not why the FCC isn’t doing more to promote copper.”
However, as we have seen several times over the past few months, many copper-wire landline customers — often elderly — are in fact confused by why their phone company (Verizon) is threatening to shut off their service. Or they are confused as to why they can get neither repairs nor straight answers when something goes wrong, and are instead transferred without explanation to a service they do not understand or want.
The FCC is not saying that landline companies need to stop the transition. They are saying that landline companies need to inform customers it’s happening.
Chairman Tom Wheeler spoke last, pointing out that network owners have always had a certain level of responsibilities they are required to meet with regard to consumers. “The compact between those who build and operate networks and those who use them — that compact has not been changed because of a change in technology,” Wheeler said.
“If a carrier is going to shut down an analog copper service, this item says three things. One: Go for it! We want you to utilize the advantages of fiber! We want to encourage that. BUT! Don’t do it in the dark,” Wheeler continued.
“Let consumers know, in plenty of time, including letting them know the options that they have. And continue to provide comparable services to those leasing capacity, including those who lease wholesale capacity to provide retail competition.”
“Changing technology is not a rationale for stifling service or competition,” Wheeler reiterated. “While I chuckle at the efforts of some to discover rate regulation hiding under this bed,” an accusation often also lobbied at net neutrality, “the decision today is a simple matter.”
“Changing technology does not change responsibility. Fiber brings great cost savings, great efficiencies, and great opportunities for new services to carriers. But it does not bring the opportunity to walk away from the responsibilities that govern the relationship between those who build and those who use the facilities.”
After Wheeler’s remarks, the commission took the vote and narrowly approved the measure.
The commission also voted, less contentiously, to approve the part of the rule that would require phone companies to offer a solution for at least 8 hours’ worth of emergency back-up power to allow users to contact 911 even during a power outage.