FCC Looking at Backup Power for CPE

Fuld-modell-frankfurtThe FCC is currently deliberating whether they should require battery or other power back-up for all voice providers. They asked this question late last year in a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in Docket 14-185 and recently numerous comments have been filed, mostly against the idea.

This would affect both cable TV companies and fiber providers since those technologies don’t provide power to telephone sets during a power outage. Customers still on copper have their phones powered from the copper (assuming they have a handset that can work that way), but the FCC sees the trend towards phasing out copper and so they ask the question: should all voice providers be required to provide up to eight hours of backup so that customers can call 911 or call for repairs?

The FCC also asks dozens of other questions. For instance, they ask if there should be an option for customers to replace batteries or other back-up power. They ask if something universal like 9 volt batteries might be made the default backup standard.

One can tell by the questions asked in the NPRM that the FCC really likes the idea of requiring battery backup. I put this idea into the category of ‘regulators love to regulate’ and one can see the FCC wanting taking a bow by providing a ‘needed’ service to millions of people.

But one has to ask: how valuable would this really be for the general public? As you might expect, both cable companies and fiber providers both responded negatively to the idea. They made several major valid points against the idea:

  • Most Handsets Don’t Use Network Power. We all remember the days of the wonderful Bell telephones that all were powered from the copper network. If you had a problem with your phone, one of the first things you always tried was to carry your phone outside and plug it into the NID to see if your problem was inside or outside of the house. I remember once when I had an inside wiring issue that I spent several days squatting on my carport steps to carry on with my work. And those phones were indestructible; my mother still has her original black Bell telephone and it works great. But today you have to go out of your way to buy a plain phone that is network powered. If you get a phone with a portable handset or with any built-in features it’s going to need home power to work. So the question becomes: how many homes actually have phones that would work even there was some sort of backup during an outage?
  • Cell Phone Usage. Landline penetration has fallen significantly in the country. At peak it was at 98% yet today the nationwide penetration is under 60%, with the penetration rate in some major cities far below that. But as landlines have dropped, cellphone usage has exploded and there are now more cellphones in the US than there are adults. As many filers pointed out, when power is out to a home people will make emergency calls from their cellphones. And for the 40% or so of homes that only use cellphones, it’s their only way to make such calls anyway.
  • High Cost of Maintaining Batteries. I have clients that operate FTTP networks and who originally supplied batteries for all of their customers. This turned into a very expensive maintenance nightmare. In a FTTP system these batteries were inside the ONT (the electronics box on the side of the home). This means that the ONT had to be opened by a company technician to replace the batteries, meaning a truck roll, and meaning that a customer can’t replace their own batteries. When batteries go bad they must be replaced or they leak and damage the electronics, and these companies found themselves committing major resources to replacing batteries while they also realized that due to the above issues most of their customers didn’t care about having the backup.
  • What Do You Back-up? There are numerous different ways these days to provision broadband to people (and consequently voice). Some of these options don’t have a practical battery backup available. For example, a cable modem costs a lot more if it includes a power backup, particularly one that is supposed to last for 8 hours. I can’t imagine that there is any practical way to provide backup power other than to supply an off-the-shelf UPS for ISPs who deliver broadband with unlicensed wireless networks. And today, even the FTTP business is changing and ONTs are becoming tiny devices that are plugged into an inside-the-house outlet. Also, who is responsible for providing the backup when a customer buys third party voice from somebody like Vonage that is provisioned over their broadband product?
  • This Adds to the Cost of Deploying Fiber. Building new fiber to premises is already expensive and such a requirement would probably add another $100 per household to the cost of deploying fiber, without even considering the ongoing maintenance costs.
  • Today Most of the Alternatives Proposed by the FCC Don’t Exist. Nobody has ever bothered to create standard battery backup units for a number of network components in coaxial networks. Cable companies have been delivering voice for many years and have had very few requests or demand for providing backup. There certainly are not any backup products that would rely on something standard like 9 volt batteries. And in many networks, such a product would not be able to provide 8 hours of backup. For example, a cable modem would drain even a commercial UPS in a few hours (I know, I have mine set up that way).

I am certainly hopeful that the FCC heeds the many negative comments about the idea and doesn’t create a new requirement for which I think there is very little public demand. Sometimes the best regulation is doing nothing, and this is clearly one such case.

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