The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken the first steps to fully considering how Verizon’s Voice Link deployment impacts consumers.
Yesterday evening the FCC notified Verizon that it would not automatically approve Verizon’s application to replace its traditional wireline network with a fixed wireless service called Voice Link in Fire Island, NY and Mantoloking, NJ. The FCC also requested more data from Verizon about Voice Link’s reliability and quality and the services Voice Link does or does not support.
This still leaves open the question of whether the FCC will ultimately approve or deny Verizon’s request to roll out Voice Link instead of copper, but it at least ensures the FCC won’t simply let Verizon’s application be approved in an absence of mind under a fast-track process that wasn’t designed for a situation as novel and complicated as Verizon’s post-Superstorm Sandy network changes.
Last October, Superstorm Sandy damaged the copper networks of several carriers on the barrier islands in New York and New Jersey. In May, Verizon responded by asking the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC) to replace its damaged copper network with Voice Link, a voice-only fixed wireless service. The NYPSC has since received hundreds of complaints from residents arguing that Voice Link has inferior voice quality and reliability, and doesn’t support services like internet access, medical alerts, security alarms, and credit card processing that users and businesses had relied on over the wireline network.
Public Knowledge responded to all of this by asking the FCC to take Verizon’s application to replace its copper with Voice Link out of the default automatic process, which would have automatically approved Verizon’s request on August 27th. And, with several other consumer groups, PK asked the FCC to start a separate proceeding to give guidance to consumers and carriers for future post-natural disaster network changes. While we haven’t heard back on the latter request, the FCC has now taken Verizon’s application off of the fast-track process that could have set a dangerous precedent for future network changes.
Letting Verizon’s application be automatically granted without any actual action from the FCC could have sent Verizon and other carriers the message that they are free to force customers off of wireline networks and onto cheaper but more limited and less reliable fixed wireless or VoIP services without asking the FCC’s permission. The FCC would have effectively lost control over how and when carriers transition their customers off of the networks they have relied on for decades. And in states that have stripped or limited their state agencies’ power to protect users of phone or VoIP networks (half of the country at this point), there would be no cop on the beat watching out for consumers on the state or federal level.
So while we don’t know how the FCC will decide on Verizon’s request at the end of the day, it is at least a good sign to see the FCC taking the time to carefully consider the issue and asking for the additional information it needs to figure out whether Voice Link is an adequate substitute for the previous copper network.
Without saying exactly how the information would figure into its deliberations, the FCC asked for data about Voice Link’s reliability (including issues like 911 access, network congestion, backup power, and outages) and its quality of service. The FCC also asked Verizon to explain which services (like security alarms or faxes) that were supported by the copper network are now not supported by Voice Link. Again, this doesn’t tell us whether the FCC will ultimately decide Voice Link must be able to support those features to be approved (although we think they should factor into the question of whether Voice Link deployment adversely affects the community), but it is nice to see the FCC at least collecting all of the relevant data at this stage.
The FCC was right to take the time to make sure it only decides Verizon’s Voice Link application after it has all the facts and all the relevant information about the service. Going forward, the FCC will hopefully use the information it gathers to make sure customers can continue to count on a reliable, effective phone network even as they rebuild their communities after natural disasters.