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Protecting Consumers in the Transition from Copper Networks

by: Julie Veach, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau

May 7, 2014 - 03:17 PM

A unanimous Commission held in January that the technology transitions currently underway are a positive development for American consumers—holding promise for innovative new services and unleashing innovation and opportunity.  The Commission also agreed that its role is to ensure that these transitions reinforce and advance the fundamental values found in the Communications Act:  public safety, competition, consumer protection, and universal service.

An important transition is the move away from the old copper-based networks to networks that rely on fiber, wireless, and other technologies.  These technologies can offer benefits for consumers and network providers alike.  For example, copper deteriorates quickly in flood situations, and the broadband speeds it can support have been limited (although some innovative companies offer broadband services over copper at speeds above 50 Mbps).  Fiber can support broadband speeds of 1 Gbps or more; wireless facilities are often less costly to deploy and can support use at multiple locations. 

But customers have come to rely on the features and functionalities of the old copper networks.  Communications systems can fail in different ways and for different reasons depending upon the underlying technology used; this raises questions about consumer expectations, and potential consumer harms, as they transition from one technology to another.  For example, based on their experience with copper networks, consumers may expect their plug-in phones to work during a power outage without any action on their part.  Consumers may also expect a variety of familiar data-based services, such as credit card readers, home alarms, and medical alert monitors, to function in a particular way.  Networks other than copper may not support these functionalities, or not in the ways that consumers have come to expect.

The FCC supports the transition to fiber and other next-generation networks while ensuring that the core values entrusted to us by Congress remain in place.  We intend to monitor technology transitions closely to assess how communications providers are maintaining this balance and to keep consumers informed.  If we find that core values are not being maintained in these transitions, then it is the FCC’s responsibility to protect customers consistent with what Congress told us to do. 

Of course, communications providers can take important actions on their own—and we encourage them to do so.  For example, we expect providers to inform customers of the changes that they might see in a move away from copper-based networks—so that they know how and under what terms critical functions are supported with the new technologies.  If a particular function will no longer be supported, carriers should explain that to their customers in a clear, understandable manner. 

With all of this in mind, I’d like to make three points about ways the public can be informed about, and have a voice in, technology transitions that affect them—including in transitions away from copper networks. 

First, as carriers make changes to their networks that affect other providers or the ability of their customers to use previously-supported equipment, they are required to file network change notices with us.  These notices are posted here when we put them out for public comment.  For example, earlier today we posted a notice about plans by Verizon to retire copper facilities in Belle Harbor, New York and Ocean View, Virginia, and to migrate customers in those areas that are currently on the company’s copper network to its fiber network.  We understand that in each location, the copper facilities will be permanently retired from service, but that at this time TDM-based services—sometimes referred to as “Plain Old Telephone Service”—will continue to be made available to customers over the fiber network.  We want to hear from every kind of customer—residential, small or large business, wholesale, and those served by wholesale customers—about the potential benefits and/or harms that could come from the retirement of these copper facilities.  Instructions for sending us your comments can be found here.

Second, federal law also requires carriers and interconnected VoIP providers to notify the public and obtain our permission before they “discontinue, reduce, or impair service to a community, or part of a community.”  This “Section 214 discontinuance” process—named after the part of the Communications Act where it is found—enables the FCC to ensure that any such change in service does not create unreasonable consumer hardship.  To be clear, not all technology transitions trigger this process; for example, some transitions are seamless for consumers and deliver all the services and functionalities of the legacy service.  But no technology transition should result in an “impairment” of service without an opportunity for public comment and FCC review.  

The FCC takes its statutory responsibilities under Section 214 seriously, and expects carriers to do the same.  We will look carefully at the application of Section 214 to different types of technology transitions.  We also would like to hear from members of the public about this subject, as my Bureau prepares to offer recommendations to the full Commission on these issues.

Third, consumers who have concerns about any particular situation can contact our Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau to file complaints—either by calling 1-800-CALL-FCC or by filing a complaint online at http://www.fcc.gov/complaints.  We carefully monitor our consumer complaints to stay informed about any concerns with how technology transitions are being managed, including transitions away from copper-based networks.

Make no mistake—the FCC supports investment in new networks.  But investment and innovation go hand-in-hand with the statutory values that we are charged to protect—on behalf of individuals, communities, and other stakeholders.  We encourage consumers, service providers, and others to provide us with their input and insights so that we can fulfill our obligations and consider our next steps.

Updated: May 7, 2014 - 04:26 PM
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