Tech Transitions: How Will You Know When You’re Transitioning?

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Over the past four weeks, we have featured a series of blog posts about the tech transitions. You can read the entire series here. In our final post of the series below, Meredith Whipple explains what communities need to know about their new networks, why this is important, and what the FCC did about it this month.

In the previous posts of this series, we’ve referenced Fire Island a lot, but haven’t gone into detail. Here’s what happened, and why it still matters:

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy struck, and wrought unprecedented damage up and down the East Coast of the United States. The storm devastated many public utilities, leaving people without electricity, water, and phone access. In Fire Island, New York, Verizon responded to the storm’s damage by replacing its landline copper phone and DSL network with a new fixed wireless service called “Voice Link.”

This transition was extremely problematic for Fire Island residents. They complained about Voice Link’s spotty reception and unreliable connections. Local small businesses pointed out it didn’t work with many security systems, fax machines, and credit card machines. Alarm systems and medical monitors were failing. Unlike the copper network, Voice Link did not provide Internet access, and its terms of service disclaimed liability if 9-1-1 calls failed to go through.

After the public outcry and investigations by the New York Public Service Commission (NYSPC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Verizon decided to give the community its high quality fiber FiOS network instead.

Lessons from Fire Island

What if the residents of Fire Island had been given notice of the new service, and an explanation of how it would affect their daily lives? What if they had been given an opportunity to speak up about the problems this transition could cause, and how Voice Link failed to meet their communications needs? Many of the problems resulting from Voice Link could have been avoided.

Without the NYPSC and the FCC intervening, nothing would have stopped the decision makers at Verizon from rolling out whatever service they thought was good enough for a local community with no other provider.  Additionally, NYPSC and FCC intervention led to Verizon releasing the Voice Link Terms of Service and explicit limitations of the network, giving residents the information they needed to understand the transition. This is the sort of protection we expect from the FCC, and given the rapid deregulation of many state Public Service Commissions, the FCC is often the only thing standing between service providers and consumers to demand quality of service and reliability.

Whether it is the result of a natural disaster, or simply a standard network upgrade, customers must be notified when a provider decides to retire existing infrastructure and replace it with new infrastructure. These changes can impact the reliability and functionality of the network, so customers should have notice of what changes are going to happen. They also need to understand what to expect from the new network, and how their business, personal, and emergency communications will be effected. Finally, after they are given this information, they need time to be able to send comments on those changes to the FCC.

FCC Takes Action

For years, Public Knowledge has asked the FCC to implement adequate standards for public notification for the tech transitions. This means that even if a portion of the copper network is removed or disabled, the provider is effectively retiring the old network and should go through the necessary regulatory process to do so (including the FCC discontinuance notices we discussed last week). When a network is disabled for a short term, or only partially disabled, this may not significantly impact providers, but it can have a devastating impact on residents and businesses that rely on the network.

Furthermore, as we have discussed in earlier posts in this series, some providers simply stop maintaining the existing copper networks until they become unusable and are forced to be retired (often referred to as “copper rot” or “de facto retirement”). When this happens, the public needs to know about it in advance.  Simply leaving consumers to discover that their service is not working due to neglect is not only unacceptable to consumers who have paid for the service; it is dangerous in life threatening situations.

At their monthly Open Meeting this month, the FCC set expectations for notifying consumers prior to retiring copper lines. This includes partial copper retirement, copper retirement after a natural disaster, and de facto copper retirement. Notice will be required approximately six months in advance for non-residential customers and three months in advance for residential customers. Additionally, the FCC will require that notice be given to providers of interconnecting networks in order to prevent service interruption, and will require that replacement services be offered at rates, terms, and conditions that are reasonably comparable to the legacy services.

This is a major win for consumers as we move forward with the tech transitions. There is still work to be done in order to make sure the tech transitions uphold the five fundamental values of the phone network and protect consumer interests, but the FCC has heard the public interest community and taken action to ensure consumers will know about transitions in their communities and be able to take action when needed, avoiding a repeat of the failed transition at Fire Island.

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