FCC Shouldn’t Rubber Stamp a Request to Drastically Change Phone Service for Thousands
FCC Shouldn’t Rubber Stamp a Request to Drastically Change Phone Service for Thousands
FCC Shouldn’t Rubber Stamp a Request to Drastically Change Phone Service for Thousands

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    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
    of “progress.”

    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.