As phone companies ditch copper, they nix the ability to call during blackouts

Some telecoms embrace fiber and wireless phone lines, which are faster but do not supply electricity on their own, as copper lines do.

Lauren Victoria Burker/AP Photo (FILE)
In this March 17, 2015 file photo, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the telecommunications industry, says AT&T Mobility LLC misled consumers.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday put several new rules in place to regulate telecom companies looking to move away from the old copper wires that have carried voices across town and around the world for more than a century.

But, until this week’s decisions, if you wanted to know what was going on with your carrier’s network decisions, you’d need to go online to the FCC’s website and try to find your answers. Now, your phone company has to tell you, directly.

Though there has never been an impediment to phone companies wishing to ditch the copper in favor of faster fiber, there has been no regulation requiring information be given directly to customers. Now, companies need to give you three months notice and guarantee the same quality and functionality as before the switch. And, if companies do want to change what services they provide, there is a process with more defined rules in place for such requests.

Phone companies have been making the move to fiber optic cable for a while now, says Mark Wigfield from the FCC’s Media Relations Office. Some companies have even been considering entirely wireless networks, even for that phone you still plug into the port in your kitchen wall. Mr. Wigfield says that there are many benefits to this move, not the least of which is the ability to receive high-speed Internet service over the same lines on which you make a phone call. But, the move away from copper may be cause for some concern.

The biggest benefit to those old copper wires is that they carry their own electricity. So, when the power goes out, you can still make a call as long as your phone unit itself is still in operation. This is not so with fiber.

“The Commission took this fact very seriously, especially as it related to 911 calling,” says Wigfield. “That means that the new rules include a mandate that requires phone companies to make direct-to-consumer offers of power backups.” Wigfield says that these backups would be at the consumer’s expense, but at least they would know exactly what they needed and where to get it.

“It’s been a long and educational conversation,” says Wigfield. The Commission heard reports from businesses and consumers concerned for their ability to make calls, process credit card payments, and more. The new rules, though certainly not a catch-all for every potential problem, make efforts to encourage the move to better technology for the telecom industry while trying to respect the needs of the consumer.

The Commission still has new hearings scheduled to further define the process for companies as they venture into newer, better, faster technology. And considering the speed at which the industry is evolving, anything the FCC comes up with may have to be reevaluated sooner rather than later. But, at least with these new rules, the consumer wasn’t left out.

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