As storm season quickly approaches, the FCC needs to resolve major questions on what it means when phone infrastructure is destroyed and phone companies want to rebuild it differently.
The transition from the traditional public
switched telephone network (PSTN) to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is
inevitable, and a good thing. But if the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) does not provide new guidance on natural disaster recovery efforts, those
efforts have the potential to derail a mindful transition by allowing carriers
to evade consumer protections and ensure that they have
access to the phone services on which they rely.
Over the past couple of months, Public Knowledge has expressed
concern about Verizon’s replacement of wireline phone service with Voice Link in
Fire Island and Mantoloking in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Verizon’s actions in
Fire Island are certainly troubling, but they also raise the broader question
of what the procedure for carriers rebuilding and restoring service after a
natural disaster should be.
Verizon has now filed an application to discontinue its
wireline phone service, which must be approved by the FCC. The FCC could grant
Verizon’s petition as just a routine filing or use it as a way to discuss
broader disaster rebuilding during the PSTN transition, but we believe that
either of those actions would be a mistake.
Verizon may have been the first phone provider to replace
wireline infrastructure with fixed wireless or VoIP service after a disaster,
but it will likely not be the last. There must be processes in place to guide
these transitions, determine which new services are adequate to replace the
traditional services customers have relied upon, and inform the public about
what these new services can and can’t provide.
Rather than using Verizon’s application as the vehicle, the
FCC should decide the basic issues underlying this process in a broader
proceeding. This would encourage an open public discussion on how carriers and
subscribers should proceed when handling post-disaster network damage, and
facilitate a more guided, well thought-out process.
There must be a balance between maintaining a controlled
phone network transition that protects consumers and competition while
acknowledging the economic burden and inefficiency of rebuilding copper
infrastructure that is regarded as increasingly obsolete.
The FCC must decide how it will guide carriers who wish to
rebuild after natural disasters by replacing infrastructure with a new service that
offers a more limited range of services and capabilities. Creating a procedure with
guidelines on how the FCC will examine the equivalency of new services with the
ones they hope to replace would streamline future processes and provide
guidance to both carriers and the public about what changes are acceptable.
Even if the FCC decides that the services that evolved
alongside the copper phone lines—like DSL internet access, calling cards,
collect calls, medical alerts, and security alarms—aren’t necessary, it must at
least consider those issues. This technology transition should not be a step backwards
for customers, and vulnerable populations should not be exploited in the name
A rulemaking would also have the advantage of being more
comprehensive, and addressing more issues than those raised by events in Fire
Island and Mantoloking. Voice Link is only one of many fixed wireless services
that carriers are developing, and this specific factual situation does not
provide the opportunity to answer the whole range of potential questions raised
by infrastructure damage due to natural disasters.
If the FCC does not start a new rulemaking, and instead
addresses only Verizon’s 214(a) application to replace its copper
infrastructure with Voice Link in Fire Island and Mantoloking, it must do so
aware of the context in which it acts. 214(a) applications are usually a
routine matter, but in this case treating the events in Fire Island and
Mantoloking as routine could set a disastrous precedent. If Verizon’s
application is granted without thoughtful deliberation and debate, carriers
will have to rely solely on case-by-case decisions going forward, without
guidance from the FCC. Additionally, consumers would remain unaware that
hurricane season might bring about permanent new restrictions to their phone
Public Knowledge doesn’t think the FCC should provide
guidance for post-disaster rebuilding via Verizon’s application. But if it
does, it should do so aware of the precedential value of that guidance, and so
must seek input from stakeholders as well as the many communities who will be
impacted, both now, in Fire Island, and in the event of future disasters.
The FCC has stressed the need for a thoughtful PSTN
transition. Blanket approval of service changes after a disaster would
undermine those efforts and allow carriers to use infrastructure damage as a regulatory
windfall. The FCC must take this opportunity to comprehensively address all
questions related to post-disaster network rebuilding. This will ensure that
responses to natural disasters will be designed to protect consumers, promote
competition, and encourage rebuilding.
Image by flickr user New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.