In perhaps one of the oddest rulings I have ever seen out of the FCC, they just ordered a very specific set of rules about providing back-up power for telephone lines that are not powered by copper.
I see this as odd for two reasons. First, this is fifteen years too late. There are tens of millions of customers that are served without backup power today. Customers that get phone service from cable companies, fiber networks, and other VoIP systems don’t have backup power unless the provider has gone out of their way to provide it.
Second, this is obviously the FCC’s way of making it harder for the large telcos to knock people off of copper networks. But in doing so the FCC is punishing the rest of the industry by adding new rules and new costs . .
These new rules seem like a solution without a problem. Why do I say that? We no longer have a world full of the old Western Electric telephones that are powered by the copper network. A phone that has any features, which most modern phones do, must be plugged into home power to work. Further, there have been tens of millions of customers who have elected to take phone service from cable companies and fiber providers, which do not provide backup. And there has not been a huge outcry from these many customers over the last ten years about lack of power backup. The main reason for that is probably that the vast majority of homes have a cellphone today and don’t rely on their home telephone as a lifeline.
Here is what the FCC ordered:
- The ruling only covers residential fixed voice services that do not provide line power (which is done by telephone copper). This does not apply to business customers.
- This must be implemented within 120 days by large companies and within 300 days by companies with less than 100,000 domestic retail subscriber lines.
- The back-up power must include power for all provider-furnished equipment and anything else at the customer location that must be powered to provide 911 service.
- From the effective date, companies must describe to each new customer, plus to every existing customer annually the following:
- The solutions offered by the company to provide 8 hours of backup for phone service, including the cost and availability;
- Description of how the customer’s service would be affected by loss of power;
- Description of how to maintain the provided backup solution and the warranties provided by the company;
- How the customer can test the backup system;
- Within three years of the effective date of the order a provider must provide a back-up solution that is good for 24-hours and follow the above rules.
This just seems like something that should have been addressed in 2000 and that it is far too late to be putting rules in place for this now. This merely adds regulatory cost to every provider without any real benefit to customers. In a lot of networks, if the neighborhood loses power so does the service provider. If such a network is down then no amount of power at the home is going to provide voice service. And there are networks that are going to require a very expensive solution for providing 24-hour back-up if it is even reasonably affordable at all.
The order doesn’t say the back-up solution has to be affordable, and the cynical me says that this is an opportunity for the phone companies to also go into the solar power business. Perhaps the solution they should offer for providing 911 backup is to sell a home a $20,000 solar power system. I know the FCC wouldn’t see the humor in that, but this order is so far out in left field that I have a hard time taking it seriously.
My inner cynic says you are very much on target regarding the FCC’s primary motivation and that all of the other consequences are simply ignored. Ignored as well is the actual usefulness to the consumer without regard to the cost – benefit analysis. Unfortunately, it also provides a misplaced level of confidence for unwary consumers who fail to educate themselves on their specific needs and situation. They may think they are covered and may well discover that they are not when they need it the most.
The FCC takes a hard line with regard to availability of 911 and the needs of the AARP constituency. A lot of older folks take line powered, 5-Nines available POTS for granted. And there is no convincing them that FTTH-derived POTS is more reliable than copper pairs. They just remember that Ma Bell assured them that the phone would always work, and that the phone worked through the blackout after Hurricane Gloria in 1962. We saw the protests in the wake of Sandy, after VZ decided to rebuild with FiOS, even though VZ provides 8 hours of backup power.. It isn’t about engineering rationale, it’s about the power of a narrative, rightful obsession with public safety and the elderly, and of course politics..
The order is actually pretty modest in its requirements on the Telcos. It’s not retroactive to existing installations, they can charge extra for the backup unit, it can be accomplished with existing, multi-sourced equipment, and it doesn’t micro-manage technology. Most broadband providers already meet the technical requirements.
The nightmare scenario is when some elderly person involuntarily gets their copper pairs swapped out for FTTH derived POTS, the power goes out, they start having chest pains, pick up the phone and get no dial tone. The inevitable bad press and public backlash aren’t going to be good for progress.
I don’t view it as modest in that it’s another new customer notice that has to be done year after year. This is how regulation becomes a burden, one little regulation at a time. But those little rules add up to real costs.
And almost nobody meets the technical requirement. A battery backup in a FTTH system will last 8 hours – if you don’t use it. But actual talk time is a few hours at best with a brand new battery, and far less with an aging one. And what’s the current technical solution for a cable company where most customers off copper sit today?
This order falls under the category of, “regulators just have to regulate”. You hit the nail on the head and they are passing this new rule so that they don’t get that headline about somebody who couldn’t dial 911 during a power outage. But there have been tens of millions of customers on cable networks for a number of years now and I can’t recall ever having seen such a headline. I would call this regulating from fear rather than regulating from reality.