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What Happens When Your Phone Network Fails?

July 2, 2015 , ,

Fun fact: unlike traditional copper lines, most new “land line” phone technologies don’t run on their own power. When the power goes out, so does the phone line—and your ability to call for help.

It’s even more dangerous for those in rural areas. A severed copper line can isolate a remote community from the outside world. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the small customer base and the high cost of repairs means that phone companies don’t have an incentive to replace—or even service—damaged copper in these areas. Instead, companies have pushed to offload these communities onto cheap, less reliable technologies such as wireless “landline” services and VoIP. The result is a one-two punch against marginalized communities who need access the most.

This public safety catch-22—you can’t call for help at exactly the moment you’re most likely to need it, especially if you’re in a community that needs it the most—is one of the many reasons Public Knowledge, along with 28 other public interest groups, is calling for the FCC to include backup power requirements for consumer premises equipment (CPE) in their ongoing tech transition rulemaking.

The phone companies, unfortunately, don’t see any problem at all with the way they do business. The Independent Telephone and Telecommunications Alliance (ITTA) recently argued that there’s “virtually no consumer demand for” backup power solutions—and that when it is offered, “in nearly all cases, customers decline the option.”

However, what’s more likely is that:

  1. this phone technology is relatively new, so
  2. consumers don’t fully realize that their new phone network will stop working when the power goes out, and thus
  3. underestimate the risk of losing service in an emergency.

If you need proof of how spectacularly these new systems can fail, look no further than Fire Island, New York. When Verizon decided not to repair the copper phone lines that had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and instead deployed its wireless VoiceLink service, residents were absolutely furious at the system’s shortcomings—including its susceptibility to bad weather.

Emergency responders were among the first critics of the VoiceLink service. The local fire department spoke out against it. The town EMS captain called VoiceLink service “malarkey” and that could create unacceptable delays in getting patients the care they need. (Keep in mind that Fire Island is, under ideal conditions, a 14-minute boat ride and 3-minute ambulance trip from the nearest ER; imagine the effects on a community like May, West Virginia, where the nearest emergency room is a two-hour drive through the Allegheny mountains.)

Even the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials spoke out, telling the FCC that “a single cell site or cell sector outage, particularly in rural or isolated areas” could be devastating. And the proprietary backup battery that VoiceLink supplied can’t sustain use in an emergency.

ITTA also argues that, since more and more people are “cutting the cord” and relying primarily on their cell phones, the whole problem will just fade into irrelevance anyway. However, this misses the mark on exactly why people hold on to their landlines; consumers have repeatedly said that they keep their landlines specifically as a safety net in case of emergency. As one Fire Island resident complained, “my son has a medical condition and … I didn't want to be dependent on my cell phone if we should have an emergency.”

Phone companies should not be putting consumers’ lives at risk in their rush to new technologies. The FCC needs to monitor the transition to ensure that vulnerable communities—and all consumers—aren’t left in the lurch. 

 

Image credit: Flickr user Eje Gustafsson