FCC Shouldn’t Rubber Stamp a Request to Drastically Change Phone Service for Thousands

As storm season quickly approaches, the FCC needs to resolve major questions on what it means when phone infrastructure is destroyed and phone companies want to rebuild it differently.

The transition from the traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN) to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is inevitable, and a good thing. But if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not provide new guidance on natural disaster recovery efforts, those efforts have the potential to derail a mindful transition by allowing carriers to evade consumer protections and ensure that they have access to the phone services on which they rely.

Over the past couple of months, Public Knowledge has expressed concern about Verizon’s replacement of wireline phone service with Voice Link in Fire Island and Mantoloking in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Verizon’s actions in Fire Island are certainly troubling, but they also raise the broader question of what the procedure for carriers rebuilding and restoring service after a natural disaster should be.

Verizon has now filed an application to discontinue its wireline phone service, which must be approved by the FCC. The FCC could grant Verizon’s petition as just a routine filing or use it as a way to discuss broader disaster rebuilding during the PSTN transition, but we believe that either of those actions would be a mistake.

Verizon may have been the first phone provider to replace wireline infrastructure with fixed wireless or VoIP service after a disaster, but it will likely not be the last. There must be processes in place to guide these transitions, determine which new services are adequate to replace the traditional services customers have relied upon, and inform the public about what these new services can and can’t provide.

Rather than using Verizon’s application as the vehicle, the FCC should decide the basic issues underlying this process in a broader proceeding. This would encourage an open public discussion on how carriers and subscribers should proceed when handling post-disaster network damage, and facilitate a more guided, well thought-out process.

There must be a balance between maintaining a controlled phone network transition that protects consumers and competition while acknowledging the economic burden and inefficiency of rebuilding copper infrastructure that is regarded as increasingly obsolete.

The FCC must decide how it will guide carriers who wish to rebuild after natural disasters by replacing infrastructure with a new service that offers a more limited range of services and capabilities. Creating a procedure with guidelines on how the FCC will examine the equivalency of new services with the ones they hope to replace would streamline future processes and provide guidance to both carriers and the public about what changes are acceptable.

Even if the FCC decides that the services that evolved alongside the copper phone lines—like DSL internet access, calling cards, collect calls, medical alerts, and security alarms—aren’t necessary, it must at least consider those issues. This technology transition should not be a step backwards for customers, and vulnerable populations should not be exploited in the name of “progress.”

A rulemaking would also have the advantage of being more comprehensive, and addressing more issues than those raised by events in Fire Island and Mantoloking. Voice Link is only one of many fixed wireless services that carriers are developing, and this specific factual situation does not provide the opportunity to answer the whole range of potential questions raised by infrastructure damage due to natural disasters.

If the FCC does not start a new rulemaking, and instead addresses only Verizon’s 214(a) application to replace its copper infrastructure with Voice Link in Fire Island and Mantoloking, it must do so aware of the context in which it acts. 214(a) applications are usually a routine matter, but in this case treating the events in Fire Island and Mantoloking as routine could set a disastrous precedent. If Verizon’s application is granted without thoughtful deliberation and debate, carriers will have to rely solely on case-by-case decisions going forward, without guidance from the FCC. Additionally, consumers would remain unaware that hurricane season might bring about permanent new restrictions to their phone service.

Public Knowledge doesn’t think the FCC should provide guidance for post-disaster rebuilding via Verizon’s application. But if it does, it should do so aware of the precedential value of that guidance, and so must seek input from stakeholders as well as the many communities who will be impacted, both now, in Fire Island, and in the event of future disasters.

The FCC has stressed the need for a thoughtful PSTN transition. Blanket approval of service changes after a disaster would undermine those efforts and allow carriers to use infrastructure damage as a regulatory windfall. The FCC must take this opportunity to comprehensively address all questions related to post-disaster network rebuilding. This will ensure that responses to natural disasters will be designed to protect consumers, promote competition, and encourage rebuilding.

Image by flickr user New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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