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  • Writer's pictureMatt Ferguson

Telcos, with the help of the FCC, are dropping copper and replacing it with nothing

In August 2022, the FCC handed down Order 19-72, titled “FCC Grants Relief From Outdated, Burdensome Phone Industry Regulations”. Order 19-72 empowers telecommunications companies to discontinue support for and maintenance of their existing copper-based communications networks in favor of broad fiber-based network upgrades. That legacy copper networks would be upgraded to modern fiber networks is a drum telecom giants like AT&T have been beating since the 1990s. In practice, however, these upgrades still haven’t materialized for millions of households–particularly those in rural areas–because of a deeply ingrained anti-competitive spirit within the telecom industry. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is in fact an amendment of the Communications Act of 1934, sought a path to force incumbent telecommunications companies to upgrade their networks. However, as is the case with most modern legislation passed in the United States, this particular bill was largely toothless. Lacking the political power or regulatory authority to make incumbent telcos like AT&T do much of anything, the Telecommunications Act went largely ignored.

Over the ensuing decades, incumbent telecom companies like AT&T, GTE, Sprint, Verizon, and Bell South have wrung their hands, dragged their feet, litigated, lobbied, and done everything in their power to delay performing this copper-to-fiber network transition. Worse, the same telcos have for years let their existing copper infrastructure languish and decay, citing “prohibitive” maintenance and upkeep costs. In 2015, AT&T reluctantly struck a deal with the federal government to receive $428 million in subsidies to provide a minimum of 10Mbps downstream Internet service to rural areas of the country. AT&T claimed that it shouldn’t have to provide anything better than the FCC’s existing broadband standard of 4Mbps downstream, 1Mbps upstream. Considering AT&T has long enjoyed a virtual protected monopoly thanks to ongoing subsidies from the federal government and special regulatory protections from state governments, their intransigence on performing basic network maintenance and upgrades is especially vexing. After the 1982 dissolution of AT&T’s historic “Bell System” and the partitioning of the Bell system into RBOCs (regional bell operating companies), the so-called “Baby Bell” companies were slowly reabsorbed into large, national telecommunications companies, thereby establishing new monopolies and effectively rendering the original intent of the 1982 Bell breakup completely moot. In a truly absurd show of the U.S. government’s apparent lack of regulatory authority, AT&T itself purchased BellSouth, which it had divested as an RBOC only 24 years earlier, for the sum of $86 billion in 2006.

Now, these same legacy telecommunications companies, like AT&T, enjoy the same monopoly privilege that they were forced to divest over only about 40 years ago. AT&T abuses its monopoly position in broad daylight, as was evidenced by their paying a $23 million settlement to resolve a federal criminal investigation brought by the Department of Justice. In 2017, AT&T Illinois President Paul La Schiazza conspired with Speaker Michael J. Madigan, a friend of Madigan, and “other parties” to arrange a payment of $22,500 in order to essentially buy votes that AT&T found agreeable with its agenda (in this case, to step away from its copper landline obligations in Illinois).

Returning to FCC Order 19-72, we see that the federal government continues to not only fail to pass or enforce effective regulatory measures on historically highly-regulated telecom companies, but that the FCC, under former Chairman Ajit Pai’s stewardship, actually went out of its way to facilitate these telecom companies in achieving their own goals. Citing “red tape”, Chairman Ajit Pai trotted out the oft-deployed Republican rhetorical device that regulation is what’s holding companies back from necessary innovation and investment, and that deregulation would solve such broad infrastructure problems as lack of telecom service in rural communities. In spite of ongoing subsidies from the federal government to telecom companies, these upgrades have a mysterious way of never, or rarely, materializing. We need look no further than the failed effort to break up AT&T’s monopoly in 1982 if we want a case study in the almost comical failure of deregulation to achieve the ends its proponents promise.

As it stands now, in 2023, the FCC order to allow telcos to walk away from copper is in force, with no real roadmap for replacing copper in low income communities and rural areas, in particular. Of equal importance, there seems to have been little consideration by the FCC of the technical limitations of fiber-based networks as far as landline phone functionality is concerned.

Copper-based phone systems carry passive voltage throughout the system, around 48 volts DC when the phone handset is on the hook. This passive voltage allows standard phone handsets, which are not externally powered, to remain online during a power outage. While this may not seem like an issue of major importance in the era of nearly-ubiquitous cell phone ownership, it is an issue which has not been properly addressed by fiber-based Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone systems. Smartphones rely on batteries for power and on cell tower backup generators for network connectivity, and can’t guarantee reliable 911 or emergency service connectivity during an extended power outage, so placing our faith in smartphones to bridge the gap that telco companies’ neglect has caused is not a very effective solution.

During a power outage, VoIP systems will go offline unless an appropriate battery backup system has been installed; such a backup must be of sufficient capacity to keep both an Optical Network Terminal (ONT), the fiber modem, router, or gateway, and any VoIP handsets connected during an extended power outage. Power outages in the United States, as it happens, are also becoming more frequent due to an increase in ‘extreme’ weather events and neglected infrastructure. As a consequence, backup battery systems that promise 8 hours of runtime should not be considered appropriate or sufficient. How many excess deaths can we expect thanks to monopolistic telecom companies and their allies in state and federal government allowing them to just walk away from their legal obligation to provide service?

In an extended power outage event, the lack of access to a copper phone line can be a matter of life and death; alarm systems and other security devices also rely on copper phone line connectivity, in addition to traditional landline phones. The current patchwork of state-level regulation regarding copper line access only complicates the matter. VoIP service of any description, whether purchased from your Internet service provider or not, relies on effective backup power solutions at every point in the network: your home, the fiber cabinet, and the local fiber hub, depending on how widespread a given power outage is. Telcos, of course, will fight tooth and nail to spend the least money possible on ensuring continuity of service, as they have demonstrated over decades of grift, lobbying, and fighting basic, common-sense legislation–legislation that might just keep people online and alive during an emergency.

While we don’t agree with the shifting of monetary burdens onto customers for the failures of telcos, Geek Housecalls can help you implement a phone system that will keep you connected in a power outage or other emergency. We have extensive experience in VoIP phone systems and in specifying battery backup systems for installations of any size. Get in touch with us today to discuss your phone system needs.

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