FCC Orders Rules for Copper Retirement

FCC_New_LogoThe FCC in Docket FCC 15-97 issued some new guidelines for telcos that are going to cut customers off copper or impair legacy services. The same order also asks further questions in the firm of a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. This docket is part of the ongoing effort that has been called the IP Transition, where the national goal is transition from the traditional PSTN to an all-IP network.

One of the primary results of the order is notice to customers. Notice is of two types – notice to end-user customers and notice to other carriers. The new requirement is to give a three-month notice to residential customers when they are going to lose copper and give a six-month notice to business customers. Phone companies would be allowed to retire and remove copper with no notice as long as no customer service is discontinued, reduced, or impaired.

The order clarifies that ‘retirement’ means de facto retirement such that a carrier changes the service so that legacy products are no longer available. This means that a phone company can’t arbitrarily cut customers from analog copper services to a digital equivalent without supplying this notice. This is something that companies that are upgrading customers from copper to fiber need to take notice of and be prepared to notify your customers in a timely manner before the transition.

The FCC has taken note that there are legacy services that can be impacted by removing copper or from shifting to IP. For example, there are some burglar alarm services that still run off copper phone lines, although most providers of these services can readily switch over to an IP connection. There are also some old fax machines that cannot easily be made to work on VoIP and work only on copper. But for most homes, moving from a copper to a newer network has very little practical effect, except perhaps for the fact that their phones will no longer be powered by the network, which the FCC addressed in another Docket.

There can be a much bigger impact on businesses. I’ve worked with clients recently that are still using numerous ISDN connections and T1s provided over copper. There are also still huge numbers of business key systems and PBXs that are fed by T1s and PRIs. When a telco is going to discontinue these services they often require a business to make a big expenditure. This could entail buying a new phone system, new phones and perhaps even finding a new provider if the phone company can’t supply the new connection they are going to need.

The biggest issue I see with getting rid of copper is where the phone company doesn’t have an alternate landline network ready for the transition. It doesn’t seem like a big issue to me when a company like Verizon wants to move customers from copper to FiOS. There have already been tens of millions of customers who have changed from copper to either FiOS fiber or to a cable company network who have experienced and accepted the required changes.

But AT&T has said that they want to walk away from millions of rural copper customers. That would force customers to migrate to either the cable company or to cellular wireless. This could be a huge problem for business customers because there are still a lot of business districts that have never been wired by the cable companies. And even where a business can change to a cable company network, they are not always going to be able to buy the services they want from the cable company. For example, those businesses might be using trunks or Centrex today that isn’t supported by their cable provider. These businesses are going to be facing an immediate and expensive upgrade cost to keep the kind of service they have always had.

And of course, once you get outside of towns there generally is no alternative to copper other than wireless. As bad as rural DSL can be, having a 1 Mbps DSL connection is still better than having to use cellular data for a home broadband connection. At least DSL has unlimited usage where most cellular data plans have tiny data caps. And unfortunately, there are many rural areas where cell phone coverage is poor or non-existent. Cutting down copper in those areas would be basically cutting homes and businesses off from any communications.

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