FCC Confirms Plan to Further Downgrade Rural America and Widen Digital Divide

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Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission announced that the agency will consider a Second Report and Order on “Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment” to further eliminate consumer protections previously adopted by the Commission to ensure phone carriers provided notice and access to replacement services when discontinuing legacy services.

The Commission’s draft order eliminates crucial protections of the Communications Act meant to provide consumers with notice, educational materials, and purposeful processes when transitioning from legacy to next-generation services. Public Knowledge contends that removing these safeguards will leave consumers vulnerable to service downgrades without notice or even an adequate replacement.

The following can be attributed to Daiquiri Ryan, Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge:

“Upgrading to next-generation services, like high-speed broadband, is important and essential to closing the digital divide. While the copper network may be dated, millions of Americans still rely on it to support devices like credit card machines, fax machines, school fire alarms, and medical devices. With this order, the FCC gives carriers the green light to provide consumers with less notice about service changes and less time to respond. If passed, this order puts rural communities, small businesses, the elderly, and people with disabilities at risk of suddenly losing access to vital services or, worse, experiencing a downgrade in service.

“The Commission also seeks to eliminate educational and outreach requirements adopted in 2016. These requirements were carefully tailored and established after the Commission found that a discontinuance of a critical service creates a great need for consumer education. In the absence of these requirements, consumers are left to rely on carriers for plain language notice of service changes -- something that historically hasn’t sufficed.

Finally, the order eliminates FCC oversight over all network changes during long-term recovery efforts after natural disasters. This could repeat the Fire Island debacle that left entire neighborhoods without reliable phone service, most recently in places like Puerto Rico, the Florida keys, and the Gulf states still recovering from the devastating hurricanes of 2017. These past natural disasters left Americans with lower quality service and demanding basic standards from the FCC. Only a couple years later, the FCC is walking away from these calls for help.

“The Commission claims its eliminating regulatory burdens to encourage broadband investment, when really it’s just trading consumer protections for self-regulation by transitioning phone companies. This entire order really boils down to the Commission turning a blind eye to their statutory mandate to protect consumers on services central to daily life. At its heart, the order trusts carriers to just do the ‘right thing.’ Carriers’ own track record has demonstrated that’s not enough.”

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