Authored Articles & Publications Jun 28, 2017

Copper Retirement in Rural Communities

By John Gasparini

The original backbone of this nation’s telephone – twisted copper wire pairs – is being retired. This process will significantly impact communities throughout the country, particularly rural governments, consumers and small businesses, which rely on copper to a greater extent than urban and suburban communities. The details of this technology transition are being debated now, and the outcome of that debate could make the difference between a smooth transition and one that disrupts basic communications services, hurting consumers and businesses — and posing a threat to public safety.

Telecommunications providers like AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Frontier want to replace the old network with new wireless and wireline technologies that is claimed to provide faster and better service. But the industry is not just changing the medium used to carry communications – it is proposing to transition networks from traditional, circuit-switched systems to packet-switched networks that use Internet Protocol (IP). These technologies better support broadband than traditional copper phone lines, but they’re expensive to deploy and don’t work the same way – which may mean that service, where available, is not available at the same price and that equipment attached to the “old” network may not work on the new. It’s particularly critical that rural communities understand the impact and engage with the copper retirement process as it takes place in their area.

The need to improve service to rural networks is clear – the absence of adequate technology can affect the viability of rural hospitals and schools, and prevent residents from obtaining basic services. Rural communities often struggle to stay connected and many are reliant now on relatively low-speed DSL broadband or wireless options (and in some cases, dial-up access).

But, that does not mean the transition is an unvarnished good. In fact, the transition hasn’t always gone smoothly. When Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the copper infrastructure in Fire Island, New York in 2011, for example, Verizon took advantage of the chance to rebuild the network from scratch and replaced everyone’s copper-based service with new wireless systems. Those systems didn’t work when the power was out, struggled to reliably complete 911 calls and didn’t always work with existing hardware. Businesses suffered as credit card readers and cash registers proved incompatible with the new technology, and local officials were left dealing with the fallout. In the midst of all the other challenges facing those communities, unreliable communications only compounded their struggle to recover.

Over the past five years, the FCC developed a set of rules, crafted under a bipartisan framework, to help make sure that wouldn’t happen again. The FCC’s rules facilitate the transition as quickly as possible while ensuring that communities, competitors and consumers have the information and advanced notice they need to prepare. Federal law requires that the FCC grant a phone company permission to retire copper infrastructure, and the FCC in turn requires that companies give network users, including cities, towns, competitors and individual users, at least six months’ notice of pending copper retirements. Furthermore, the notice has to explain the real impact, including potential service disruptions for end-user equipment and services like power-outage performance, incompatibility with older equipment and other impacts on public safety and network reliability for governments, consumers and businesses. These rules balance the need for deployment with the need for education and user awareness.

Now, those rules are under threat. The FCC’s new leadership has proposed to eliminate these protections. In a bid to promote deployment, the FCC now wants to eliminate their notice requirements, halve the time of advanced notice and absolve carriers of any duty to speak frankly about the real impact of these changes on the equipment upon which cities, businesses and consumers rely. The FCC is essentially proposing that, as long as there’s a dial tone after the transition, the Commission will be satisfied, regardless of secondary fallout. This proposal seriously threatens what little connectivity rural communities rely upon today.

Fortunately, there’s time to join the discussion. The FCC is accepting comments on its proposal until July 17, and has already heard strong opposition to its plans from government agencies, consumer advocates, and a broad array of other stakeholders. Connectivity is critical to the future growth of rural America, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of public safety, local businesses and government entities, or consumers.

Note: This article originally appeared on the now-defunct BBKnowledge blog, where Best Best & Krieger authors shared their knowledge on emerging issues in public agency law.

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