Decommissioning Copper Lines

FCC_New_LogoThe FCC just released new rules in WC Docket 13-3 having to do with the decommissioning of copper lines. These rules apply to all regulated LECS, not just to the large RBOCs. The order also declared that the large telcos are no longer considered dominant carriers.

These rules are needed because AT&T and Verizon have been pestering the commission for five years to let them tear down copper lines. What has always surprised me about this Order is that it has been included in the docket looking at the transition of the PSTN from TDM technology to Ethernet. Decommissioning copper has nothing to do with that topic since copper lines for customers would function the same as today even with an all-IP network between carriers. But the two big telcos flooded this docket with the end-user network issues until the FCC finally caved and included the topic.

The order establishes rules that carriers must follow if they want to automatically decommission copper. A carrier must file a plan with the FCC that guarantees that:

  • Network performance, reliability and coverage is substantially unchanged for customers.
  • Access to 911 and access for people with disabilities must still both meet current rules and standards.
  • There must be guaranteed compatibility with an FCC list of legacy services that include such things as fire alarms, fax machines, medical monitors, and other devices that might not work on an IP network.

If a carrier can meet all of these requirements then they can file plans for each proposed copper retirement with the FCC. The company then needs to go through a specific notification process with customers.

While the FCC was not quite as explicit with a rule, they also expects that any replacement service to copper remain affordable for customers.

If a telco can’t meet any one of the many requirements, then they have to file with the FCC and go through a formal review process to see if the retirement will be approved. The FCC is making it clear that there will be no guaranteed timeline for the manual process.

The main regulatory impact of the rules is that now all telcos have to go through a formal process before tearing down copper. There have been, in the past, many examples of telcos taking down copper with no notification to customers or to regulators. Small telcos that have been installing fiber to customers must take notice of these rules since they now apply to them as well. These rules also means that a small telco can’t force a customer onto a fiber connection until they have gone through the FCC process.

There is still a lot of concern in rural areas that copper landlines will be taken down with only cellular service offered as the alternative. That may still happen under this process, but it’s likely that those sorts of situations will require the more detailed FCC review process and won’t be allowed automatically.

The dominant carrier issue is interesting. The FCC notes that in some markets traditional copper landlines have dropped nearly to single digit penetration rates. By ending the dominant carrier requirement for the large telcos, the FCC has lowered the regulatory burden on the large companies. For issues like 214 compliance they are now considered the same as smaller telcos. Any FCC rules that were different for dominant versus non-dominant carriers now default to the non-dominant rules. But this ruling does not end any rules that were determined by the difference between price cap and rate-of-return carriers. Those rules remain in place.

2 thoughts on “Decommissioning Copper Lines

    • One would think so. However, a lot of this copper is rural and in very bad condition. A lot of the rest is only being used to serve slow DSL. It’s starting to finally cost the big companies more to maintain it than it’s worth.

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