The way that we regulate telecom services is interesting. The FCC has effectively eliminated federal regulation of broadband, the service that over 90% of households now use. Meanwhile, landline telephone service, the telecom product that is used by an ever-decreasing number of homes is still heavily regulated.
The target of much of the remaining regulation are the big telephone companies that still operate large copper networks. It’s easy to bash the big telephone companies because of the poor quality of services offered on those copper networks, and I’ve done so many times in this blog.
When you stop and think about it, those companies are still using copper networks built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. If the telcos had been good stewards of those networks and maintained them meticulously those networks would still be 50 to 70 years old, and older than the 35-40 year expected life for the networks. The big telcos largely ignored maintenance of copper for the last 30 years or more, and frankly, it’s a miracle that the old copper networks are still working.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of telephone regulation is that a regulatory body will occasionally punish a big telco for still being in the copper business. A good example is a proceeding in New Mexico last fall where CenturyLink asked to be deregulated for landline telephone services. This doesn’t mean that they would stop offering the services, but rather that many of the old regulations put in place at the heyday of the telephone monopolies would be excused. Most states have deregulated the big telcos from a lot of the old telephone rules.
The New Mexico Public Regulations Commission (NMPRC) rejected the request and said that CenturyLink had not demonstrated that there was ‘effective competition’ for residential telephone service. It’s hard to find any way to defend that decision. First, in many states, there are now more residential telephone customers using cable company telephone services than the old telephone company copper. Interestingly, cable companies face almost no regulation in providing telephone service and any cable company in New Mexico does not live under the same rules that CenturyLink must follow.
Further, the latest surveys I’ve seen show that 96% of US adults now have a cell phone. It’s hard to say with a straight face that cellular service is not a direct competitor to landline telephone service. Considering the big recent stir at the FCC where cellular 4G coverage maps were shown to be largely fictional, perhaps a lot of rural New Mexico doesn’t have cellular coverage – and perhaps that’s what drove the Commission’s decision. It’s worth noting that cellular companies are also not as heavily regulated as landline telephone providers.
The regulation that is most relevant in this case is the obligation to be the carrier of last resort. The telcos like CenturyLink are still expected, within some regulatory exceptions, to provide service to anybody who asks for service. That obligation doesn’t extend to the cable companies, to the cellular companies, or even to rural broadband – just to telephone service.
I have no doubt that there are rural homes in the state for which CenturyLink is the only communications link to the world. In areas where there is no cellular service and where the cable companies refuse to build networks, there are rural homes that rely on CenturyLink and other telcos to keep them connected. The regulatory question that must be asked is if such homes are sufficient reason to still strongly regulate telephone service in a state. Hopefully, the number of homes without cellular service will decrease significantly when the FCC awards the $9 billion in the 5G Fund program to extend cellular service to more remote communities.
It’s not an easy question to answer. We know CenturyLink could have done a better job of taking care of their copper. In this country, the smaller independent telephone companies did the needed maintenance to keep copper in the best shape possible. We saw the same thing in Germany where the copper networks were built at the same time as US copper, but which have been maintained better.
But in this country, most of the smaller telcos have already replaced, or have plans to replace the old copper with fiber. In Germany, there are vigorous public debates on the topic, with engineers saying that the copper networks are not likely to last more than another decade. Where copper remains the Germans have invested in the fastest DSL possible – something the big telcos here inexplicably have not done.
To some degree the decision in New Mexico is meaningless. No regulatory decision can make the old copper perform better or last longer, so there are not many practical ramifications of the Commission’s decision. CenturyLink didn’t even own these networks for most of the years when the maintenance wasn’t done – although they have likely cut back further on maintenance in recent years, as have the other big telcos.
I’m not highlighting New Mexico for this issue because many other states have made similar regulatory decisions. Regulators are rightfully mad at the big telcos for neglecting copper, and even madder that there are no plans to upgrade the copper to something better. But the time for regulators to do something about this was twenty and thirty years ago. The copper wires in New Mexico are going to die, and at some future date the networks will go dark. The regulators can choose to regulate copper down to the last day of the last customer – but to a large degree, the remaining regulations don’t mean a whole lot.