Your Provider Can’t Just Take Away Your Service. Here’s Why.

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Over the coming weeks, we will feature a series of blog posts about the tech transitions. You can read the first two posts of the series here. In our third post below, Meredith Filak Rose breaks down the meaning of "Section 214" and explains why your phone provider can't just cut you off.

The fight over one small, highly technical provision in the Telecommunications Act took center stage in the recent tech transitions order—and it may be the single most important consumer protection provision in the Act.

Changing Technology

The section in question—47 USC §214—is part of Congress’s original framework to protect consumers. Passed in 1934 as part of the original Communications Act, it puts restrictions on when a company can discontinue service in a given area—particularly when it’s the only service provider in that area.

For consumers, this is huge. First, it provides security for customers to know that their phone company can’t simply pack up and leave an area, leaving them without a connection to the outside world. Second, it’s an official acknowledgement, made by Congress itself, of the idea of the network compact—that, because they provide a critical infrastructure service, phone companies have responsibilities to their subscribers. And third, it’s proof that the principles underlying an 80-year-old regulation are still relevant today. Consumers need access to the communications network, and that need is too important to be subject to un-reviewed, unilateral decisions of telephone companies. 

How does it work?

Generally speaking, if the company wants to stop offering phone service to a community, it must first ask the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to do so. If, on the other hand, it’s merely discontinuing service temporarily (say, in order to upgrade a line), it only has to notify the FCC and its consumers beforehand.

In situations where the provider wants to replace one service with another, the FCC has to figure out whether the new service is basically the same as the old service. When companies were replacing old copper with new copper, this was mostly straightforward. But now that companies are replacing copper with fiber—or fixed wireless access points—the answer is less obvious. Do these new technologies really provide the same kind of service as the old copper network, or are they something different, with different capabilities and limitations from copper?

We’ve blogged about it before, but the answer is a resounding “no.” Many health and safety devices don’t work with next-generation phone systems, and power issues can turn fixed wireless into a public safety nightmare.

The FCC agreed with Public Knowledge, and finally tackled this problem by proposing a list of criteria that they can use to judge whether a new service is comparable to the old service. Although they haven’t yet decided where to set the dial, they have laid out a framework and put out a call for data and public comments in a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

By acknowledging that the phone network is a versatile and multi-faceted tool—and not just, as some providers have argued, the means to a dial tone—the FCC has taken the first steps to making sure that the tech transitions are an upgrade for all Americans.

Rotting copper and other ills

The FCC also addressed the reality of “copper rot”—the well-documented phenomenon of providers neglecting copper lines until they become unusable, and then pushing customers onto cheaper fixed-wireless service. Lucky for consumers, the FCC recognized this practice for what it is: a deliberate discontinuance of service to (largely poor and rural) communities.

And what about when disaster strikes, and nature destroys a network in one fell swoop? If the phone company decides to replace it with something new, does that trigger their obligations under section 214? Last week, the FCC put to rest months of phone company wrangling by clarifying that yes, section 214 does indeed apply in the event of natural disasters.

So what?

What does this all mean for consumers? It means that the centerpiece of consumer protection in telecommunications is still as relevant and forceful today as it was 80 years ago. It means that you can continue to rely on your phone service, no matter where you live, and that your phone company can’t suddenly leave you high, dry, and disconnected.

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