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The Federal Communications Commission has been on a bit of a crusade under Chairman Ajit Pai’s leadership so far, taking any steps they can to reverse or undermine Wheeler-era accomplishments, no matter the pushback. While he’s had some success (and is poised to take yet another stab at limiting broadband competition tomorrow), there’s another item on Thursday’s agenda. Wrapped (somewhat deceptively) in language justifying deregulation with promises of infrastructure deployment, and lumped in with other valuable proposals, is an effort to gut important consumer protections implemented to ensure a smooth path through arguably the largest digital infrastructure project on the horizon: the tech transitions.
The tech transitions themselves are not overly complex. The copper phone network (which supports lots of other things like DSL broadband, fax machines, home alarms, credit card readers, gas pumps, and a plethora of other things we expect to simply work) is aging, and needs to be replaced. It doesn’t make any sense to replace it with more copper - broadband is the future, after all. So it’s going to be replaced with fiber, for the most part, and some wireless technology. Fiber and wireless work differently from the copper network, though, and some of the things that rely on the phone network will need to be replaced or upgraded. Consumers, small businesses, rural communities, and competitors need to know about those changes so they can plan accordingly and minimize disruption to a network that, for decades, millions of Americans have simply expected to work.
Without that advanced notice, things go badly. After Hurricane Sandy wiped out the copper infrastructure on Fire Island, Verizon replaced it with a wireless-only system, which didn’t work with things like fax machines and alarm systems, and which couldn’t even promise to complete 9-1-1 calls. This was a major problem, and it spurred a discussion at the FCC about how best to ensure that, as these necessary transitions move forward, people aren’t hurt along the way. Verizon did eventually respond by belatedly reporting its outage to the FCC and rolling out a fiber network to Fire Island and ensuring that its customers would not be stuck with a downgrade in quality of network service. Public Knowledge was a leading voice in that conversation, approaching the tech transitions from the starting point of something we call the “Five Fundamentals.”
That process resulted in the FCC adopting some simple rules for the companies taking part in the the tech transitions. These rules, based on the Five Fundamental principles ensured that the transition would not be a downgrade in service, and vulnerable communities left behind. Network providers transitioning their infrastructure now had to give everyone notice - 180 days in most cases - and they had to be thoughtful about how they did that. Separate communication was required, direct to consumers and competitors, to ensure that people would be clear about the impacts of the change. And the providers were asked to be as forthright as possible about the possible effects. They had to think not just about what services they were going to provide differently, but whether or not those changes would affect the things like 9-1-1 calls, fax machines, and home alarms, that people actually use the network for. And, in accordance with Federal law enacted by Congress, these companies (and we’re really talking about only three or four major phone companies, for the most part) had to get permission from the FCC before they could actually start ripping out anyone’s copper lines and replacing them with fiber or wireless systems.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Tell people what you’re going to do, with specificity, give them enough time and notice to adapt, and get permission before you move forward. Nothing here prohibits the companies from doing this, and the tech transitions bring a bunch of benefits including wider broadband deployment, so there’s no reason for undue delay. Simple protections, designed to keep people safe and avoid hurting small businesses, made sense.
What’s Happening Now
Unfortunately, Chairman Pai dissented when these rules were voted on, and is now beginning a proceeding to almost completely reverse them. He has proposed an item to be voted on this Thursday that suggests “eliminating some or all of the changes to the copper retirement process adopted by the Commission in the 2015 Technology Transitions Order.” To get specific, it proposes removing the requirement for individual notice to consumers, allowing providers instead to do something like a small paragraph buried in a phone bill as sufficient notice. The proposal also reduces by half the amount of forewarning providers have to give before they carry out network changes, thereby cutting in half the amount of time consumers and businesses will have to adapt. Additionally, it proposes changing a legal interpretation so that providers don’t have to worry about secondary effects of their network changes - whether or not fax machines and home alarms will work - and focus instead on how their changes will impact themselves. And if all that wasn’t enough, Chairman Pai also wants to eliminate a rule preventing these few big companies from privately discussing their plans with their partners, before they share them with the public - a rule designed to prevent collusion and anticompetitive preferential treatment.
Not a great deal for consumers, or for competition, all in all. It seems being anti-competition is becoming a bit of a meme for Chairman Pai. The tech transitions rules enjoyed a broad base of support and, apart from those handful of multi-billion dollar companies who would both carry out, and directly benefit from, the transitions, there wasn’t that much opposition. The rules the Commission adopted are common-sense, and make sure technology moves forward while avoiding harm along the way. Competitive broadband companies supported the rules. AARP supported the rules. Rural communities supported the rules, and consumer advocates supported the rules.
None of those folks seem to have the Chairman’s ear, though. He’s more interested in what’s convenient for those few big companies, even if it means we run the risk of another situation like Fire Island, where consumers and small businesses suffered when they couldn’t count on the network they had depended on for decades. We here at PK, and our broad group of allies on this issue, look forward to engaging with the Commission in hopes that the Chairman will see the light and stop this next round of needless attacks on common-sense consumer protections.