By: The Associated Press//August 7, 2015
By: The Associated Press//August 7, 2015//
The Federal Communications Commission has approved new rules designed to help people reach 911 and prepare for changes in home phone service as the old copper network that powers it gets replaced.
Companies such as AT&T and Verizon will have to let customers know when they’re turning off the copper network so customers can figure out if they need to change services that depend on it, including home burglar alarms and medical monitoring systems. They’ll give home customers at least three months’ notice.
“Changing technology is not a rationale for stifling service or competition,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during Thursday’s meeting. “Changing technology does not change responsibility.”
Another set of rules also mandates that when phone and cable companies sell Internet-based home phone systems that look and feel like an old-school phone, they must let customers know their limitations. That includes service going out when the power does, which can be dangerous in an emergency if someone needs to reach 911. Now home phone providers must sell backup batteries with at least eight hours of standby time. They will have to sell batteries that would last for 24 hours within three years.
Some consumer advocates are concerned that the batteries will be expensive for lower-income customers. Verizon sells an eight-hour backup battery for $40.
The rules are expected to go into effect in a few months.
The FCC also outlined procedures for next year’s auction of “spectrum,” the airwaves that let you make calls, use the Internet on your phone and carry broadcast TV signals. The government wants to shift some of these signals from broadcasters to wireless carriers as people spend more time on their smartphones and tablets.
If the auction works, broadcast TV stations — the ones you can watch for free with an antenna — could choose to give up their channels. Those broadcasters would receive a share of payments from wireless carriers like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, with the rest going to the government.
Many people already scoff at the idea of a landline. About 45 percent of U.S. households just use cellphones. But outside of cities, cell service can be poor.
Yet even among households with wired phone service, according to a government study last year, about half of them have already ditched copper-based landlines for an Internet-based phone service sold by phone and cable companies and typically packaged with TV and Internet services. That’s expected to continue.
Fiber and cable networks come with big benefits, such as faster Internet service and expected improvements in 911, including the ability to send texts and photos. Verizon also says fiber lasts longer than copper and doesn’t need as much maintenance.
But a home phone that relies on the Internet will go out when the power does. With copper networks, the phone line delivers its own power source and will continue to work — as long as the phone isn’t a cordless one needing separate power.
In addition, many home burglar alarms and medical alert systems run on the copper network, so people need time to get replacements.
“One of the concerns we all have is people don’t understand the difference in these kinds of phone service. They see a phone is a phone is a phone,” said Mimi Pickering, a documentary filmmaker in rural Whitesburg, Kentucky. She fought unsuccessfully against her state’s recent decision to drop requirements that phone companies provide old-fashioned phone service to all homes. Instead, they can now offer a wireless or Internet-based service instead.
The march away from copper appears inevitable.
“There will be so few people on the network that it won’t be economical to maintain it,” said Jon Banks, a senior vice president at United States Telecom Association, which represents Verizon, AT&T and other phone companies. “When copper wears out, nobody really wants to replace it with more copper.”
Harold Feld, senior vice president at the public-interest group Public Knowledge, estimates that about 80 million people as well as several million small businesses still have traditional copper-based phone service.
Some customers, consumer advocates and the telephone-workers union accuse the phone companies of not repairing copper networks that they want to shut down. The new rules would prohibit companies from retiring a copper network through neglect. If it wants to abandon copper, it would need to tell customers.
In FCC filings, Verizon says that retirement-by-neglect is a myth, while CenturyLink says it spends billions of dollars to maintain its copper network and doesn’t see the need for this rule.
Consumer advocates have particular concerns about remote areas. They worry that copper will be replaced there with wireless services that don’t do as much.
They point to what happened on the western part of New York’s Fire Island after Superstorm Sandy destroyed a lot of the copper wiring there in 2012. Verizon wanted to replace it with a home phone service called Voice Link, which relies on the cellular network but is not a cellphone. But, unlike copper, Voice Link couldn’t be used for Internet service and didn’t work with faxes or credit-card machines used by small businesses.
After complaints, Verizon said it would also build a fiber network.
But some people, even in big cities, just want to keep their copper phone line.
“I’m on the 40th floor of an elevator building,” said Lynn Caporale, 57, who lives in New York. In a power failure, “I would have no elevator, no lights, no running water,” she said. And if Verizon took away her copper landline, “I would have no way of communicating with anybody.”