FCC Asked to Investigate Carrier Violations to Basic Phone Service

In their haste to transition from copper to all-IP networks, carriers are breaking their fundamental contract with Americans, say consumer groups.

The Utility Reform Network (TURN), Public Knowledge and 10 other public advocacy groups have joined together to ask the Federal Communications Commission to investigate claims that Verizon, AT&T and other carriers are "forcing" customers to give up their copper-based phone service and instead rely on fiber or an IP-based service.

The carriers are anxious to upgrade to fiber, which will provide them with new efficiencies, cost savings and revenue-driving opportunities. Unlike copper, fiber is unaffected by moisture and cold. But it's also less reliable and requires electricity to operate, leaving users without phone service in a power outage.

Reports from around the country, the organizations said in their May 12 letter, state that "customers are being involuntarily moved to fiber or IP-based service (or some combination thereof), even if those new technologies fail to serve all of the user's needs or will be more expensive."

They continued, "Denying basic phone service to people who have relied on the network for decades violates the network compact that has successfully guided our communications policy for one hundred years. A commission investigation of these complaints is necessary to ensure the continued vitality of the fundamental values that underlie our network, including universal service."

In November 2013, days after Hurricane Sandy, which wiped out swaths of copper infrastructure, AT&T formally asked the FCC to begin a dialogue about the transition away from copper.

At the time, Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Felt called the request the "single most important development in telecom since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996." Dialogue was critical, said Feld, since the current rules around the telephone system—regarding privacy, availability and reliability—aren't tied to the carriers but to the copper system.

Feld added that the FCC needed to ensure that the policies and principals that Americans expect from the phone system "continue to apply to the communications networks of the 21st century."

The FCC, however, has not yet put new policies in place.

It is in the process, though, of creating a "managerial framework" on which it can make policy decisions, Jodie Griffin, a senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge, told eWEEK during a May 8 conversation.

"In the meantime, carriers are generally free to offer new alternatives to customers so long as they are still also offering the basic traditional service that millions still rely on," Griffin explained. " ... The FCC has made clear that carriers need permission before they can roll out technologies that impair people's service, and even when carriers make changes like copper-to-fiber upgrades, the FCC is working to make sure customers still have access to a reliable, affordable network."

The FCC's guidelines, however, are not being adhered to, asserts the May 12 letter.

Among the examples is a motion filed by TURN, asking the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to stop Verizon from "letting the quality of its copper network deteriorate" and then "pushing customers" to FiOS or Voice Link.

(The CPUC motion also accuses Verizon of trying to suppress whistleblowers, and said that Communications Workers of America members said they were "being instructed to push customers onto fiber-based services, even if the customer expressed preference for the more reliable copper-based phone service.")

In California, AT&T, Verizon and Frontier, among others, didn't meet the out-of-service repair standard for the whole of 2010, added the letter, and in Maryland, Verizon "routinely migrates customers from the copper network to unregulated services with inadequate procedures for customer notice and consent."

Griffin, in a May 12 statement, said that if the carriers are indeed refusing to repair copper networks in order to push new technologies, "the FCC must step in to protect consumers and uphold our fundamental network values."

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