Post Rural Broadband Access Tech Transitions

What America Can Do to Strengthen Its Communications Infrastructure

March 13, 2020
phone lines

Every American should expect their communications systems to work regularly and reliably, especially during a public emergency. As we transition to new, more sophisticated and technologically-advanced networks that support an array of new services, users should expect those networks to work as reliably as the networks they replace. Those networks must also not disrupt services used by customers served by existing networks. So we should all be concerned about ensuring that the new networks have a built-in capacity to provide reliable service. 

Moreover, while we need to encourage the transition to these new networks, even with the continually declining state of our nation’s existing communications infrastructure, it must still provide service. As telephone service providers allow their embedded networks to rust and degrade with very little accountability and oversight, millions of Americans lack basic, reliable voice telephone service, including during and in the aftermath of a natural disaster — problems that are persisting into the new services, such as VoIP (“Voice over Internet Protocol,” a form of telephone service provided over broadband connections) and the wireless telephone networks upon which so many Americans are dependent. 

Network reliability and network resiliency are distinct concepts that are inextricably linked. “Network reliability” means that you can rely on the fact that you will have phone service to make and receive phone calls and text messages. As an example, a network can become unreliable from a lack of network maintenance that leads to total degradation, or a lack of preparation to handle technological failure. In California, residents experienced cell phone outages due to both a lack of maintenance and preparation 

“Network resiliency” means that after a network outage, the network revives quickly to allow consumers, including emergency responders, to make phone calls and send text messages. Network resiliency is especially important today as natural disasters are on the rise and extended outages can leave people in total isolation. Network resiliency is crucial so that people can call their loved ones, 911, and other emergency responders without those calls failing. Similarly, it allows for emergency responders to contact one another and blast public safety announcements to their communities.

America is currently facing a serious crisis in network reliability and resiliency. Communities around the country are experiencing systemic failures of critical communications infrastructure. Telephone service providers are private companies, and without regulation, they will likely choose to cut costs and increase profits rather than invest in strengthening their networks for emergency preparedness or to prevent network outages. Congress created the Federal Communications Commission for the purpose of having a centralized agency to regulate the nation’s communications networks — and the FCC can do more to help prevent these systematic failures. If the phone providers allow their networks to degrade, these companies will suffer no consequences unless federal or state regulators take enforcement action. Unfortunately, the past decade has seen a radical deregulation of the communications industry. All states have deregulated the industry to some degree, and 37 states have eliminated direct regulatory oversight. At the federal level, in 2015, the FCC adopted the Tech Transitions Order, which encouraged a national upgrade from copper to fiber communications while also codifying various consumer protections during this transition. Public Knowledge supported this Order. But in 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai eliminated these consumer protections. Public Knowledge sued the FCC to challenge the elimination of consumer protections, but the case was dismissed on technical legal grounds

A major reason why network resiliency is so important is because many people think that if there is a power outage, they will still be able to dial 911, for example, on their VoIP phone or mobile phone — but that is not necessarily true. Telephones connected to traditional “telephone company” landline copper networks are powered from the telephone company’s office and have back-up power systems so if the power goes out, your phone still works. But today, many more services have broadband based technology (e.g. VoIP Services), which do not power the telephone. And remember, while we have a national Tech Transitions policy that is encouraging every network to switch from copper-based to broadband-based technology that will allow new services, those new networks do not provide all the types of support provided by the embedded copper network. In 2015, the FCC did adopt an Order that will require companies who provide telephone company-like services to make available, at an extra cost to the consumer, equipment that the consumer can use to make 8 hours of backup power available. For the moment, these providers only need to offer this option at the point of sale. Customers can purchase a self-powered battery for their home network, but they are expensive and only last a few hours, so many do not. Instead, the FCC should require VoIP providers to offer customers the capability for 24-hour backup power at no charge. 

There’s also a serious problem with cell phones. If you are relying solely on your cell phone during a power outage, you will eventually lose battery and not be able to recharge your phone. But even if your cell phone is fully charged, if there is no power at a cell tower, the signal will hit the tower and go nowhere. 

In today’s deregulated communications industry, companies are not being held accountable for their degrading, unreliable networks, nor are they being required to provide basic assurances of network reliability — like ensuring that when you call 911 from your mobile device, the call goes to a cell tower that has power. Congress, the FCC, and states should do more to solve this problem. Here are some ideas of what can be done at the state and federal level:

  • Policymakers can impose liability on companies through fines for inexcusable outages.
  • Cell towers should be required to have backup generators so that there is backup power at every cell tower. Merely encouraging backup network generators is not enough, if there is little-to-no incentive for companies to spend money on emergency preparedness. Congress and the FCC should mandate cell tower generators to ensure that everyone has phone service during a power outage.
  • The FCC has been preempting local and state authority over broadband-based services like VoIP. Instead, it should allow localities to craft rules that are sensible for their locality and geographic landscape.
  • Private market incentives to invest in emergency preparedness have not worked. The FCC should set a mandatory framework that includes the following:
  • Consumers should have access to information regarding which companies invest in their networks reliability and resiliency. This information can better inform consumer decisions and increase competition among providers.
  • Policymakers should include electric utility companies in the regulations, given the role that a lack of power plays in communications access.
  • Congress should continue to hold hearings and hold FCC Commissioners accountable, including ensuring that they have field hearings on this issue.
  • Congress should pass the RESILIENT Act. Among other things, it requires pre-planned coordination agreements so that providers have agreements to help serve each other’s customers during and after an emergency when their networks are not operating.

The FCC and Congress must take network reliability and resiliency seriously or we will continue to experience these issues. Too many consumers are being left behind, and the problems caused by network failures are not only an inconvenience — they are often a matter of life or death. 


About Lindsay Stern

Lindsay Stern is a Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge. Prior to joining PK, Lindsay was a legal intern at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in the office of Senator Dick Durbin, as well as at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, and Street Law, Inc. Lindsay received her J.D. from The George Washington University Law School, where she was a member of the Federal Circuit Bar Journal, and received her B.A. in Government at Franklin & Marshall College. She also spent a semester studying at the University of Edinburgh. Lindsay was born and raised in New York. She is a yoga and frozen yogurt enthusiast.