Why We Must Solve the Backup Battery Power Problem During the Tech Transitions

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Over the coming weeks, we will feature a series of blog posts about the tech transitions. You can read our introductory post of the series here. In our second post below, Foster Dobry talks about the importance of backup battery power during an emergency, and what the FCC needs to do to ensure consumers have adequate backup protection during the tech transitions.

Being from Oklahoma, I am quite familiar with the power outages from thunderstorms and tornados, and how critical it is to maintain a connection to contact emergency services and family. Stories from victims of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Sandy, and other natural disasters only emphasize this importance. Maintaining reliable lines of communication – to disseminate information, coordinate emergency response and rescue, and stay in touch with loved ones – is a critical component of public safety in hurricane-prone areas.

Phone and broadband providers are currently transitioning legacy communications networks in a variety of technological ways, from copper to fiber, Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) Protocol to Internet Protocol (IP), and increasingly to wireless networks—a process commonly referred to as the “tech transitions.” (You can learn more on our Tech Transitions issue page here.)

The new technologies have the potential to provide better, faster, and cheaper phone service, making this an exciting and inevitable advancement in telecommunications. However, these transitions create vulnerabilities for people who aren’t aware of the transitions or how their communities will be impacted. The tech transition trials conducted in New York and New Jersey in 2013 clearly demonstrated the need for consumer protections to be implemented during these transitions.

Fiber and wireless networks certainly have their benefits: they are more reliable than the old copper technology, and can carry more data at higher speeds. However, these upgrades are not without their problems: each phone connected to a fiber or fixed wireless network must be separately powered, as they are not able to carry their own electricity. This means that in the event of an emergency, consumers need a backup battery option to keep their phones working. 

Now you may question the need for a battery backup at all. I mean, who really uses a landline these days anyway? Isn’t everyone using cell phones? Well, as it turns out 8.6 percent of U.S. residents still depend on traditional landline service as their primary means of communication. That’s about 27 million people (as of 2013). Also, many rural customers are outside cell range and thus cell phones are of no use. They are truly dependent on a landline in the event of an emergency, so they need their landline to work. But who is going to provide this backup power? 

Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took important initial steps in addressing this consumer need. During their monthly Open Meeting, the Commission adopted rules requiring providers of “modern home voice services” to present a few backup battery options to consumers. The Commission mandated that backup power had to be made available to customers at the point of sale, and be rated for at least 8 hours. Also, providers will be required to provide at least 24 hours of backup time within 3 years.

This may sound like a long period of time, but areas affected by hurricanes can be without power for weeks. Considering this, the FCC’s action falls short. Eight hours is much shorter than typical duration of outages. And it’s not just hurricanes we need to worry about: a simple thunderstorm can interfere with wireless connectivity, and technical glitches have been reported to disrupt communications networks over several days in excellent weather conditions (referred to as “sunny-day outages”).

Additionally, the burden of paying for the backup power falls solely on consumers, making it difficult for low-income consumers to have basic communications during emergencies. As an example of the current battery backup landscape, Verizon provides two battery backup options. Customers can either purchase a 12-volt battery, or 12 D-cell batteries to power their battery backup. Verizon sells compatible 12-volt batteries for $40. But if you are willing to risk it, you can acquire an allegedly compatible 12-volt from Amazon.com for around $18.  Naturally, this will void any warranty on the backup system. Verizon’s batteries have a projected life of around 6-8 years in standby mode. It is unclear just how long they last with frequent or semi-frequent outages.

Given the substantial cost of these backup systems, the FCC should seriously consider making battery backups part of their Lifeline Program for Low Income Consumers. Should they decline to do so, many low-income people will simply go without service during an emergency—people who need backup power the most. As these transitions go forward, the public must continue to demand that the FCC ensures these transitions are truly an upgrade for all and maintain the necessary consumer protections for every household.

 

Image credit: Flickr user jimmiehomeschoolmom

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