FCC requires consumer protections in telephone transition to IP

Telecom carriers must get permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to replace their copper networks with Internet Protocol-based systems if the change will result in discontinued or reduced voice services for customers.

The FCC also voted Thursday to require telecom carriers planning to retire traditional telephone networks to notify both residential and business customers three months in advance and to notify connecting carriers six months in advance. The rules will also require carriers to give customers an option to purchase battery backups for their replacement VoIP service.

The FCC rules allow carriers to transition to fiber-based IP voice networks as long as no service is discontinued, reduced or impaired. The agency would have to approve any changes that result in a reduction of services.

The battery backup requirement is aimed at allowing VoIP customers to continue to use their phones, including dialing 911 for emergency services, during power outages. Traditional telephone service doesn’t require an outside power source, but VoIP does.

The ongoing IP transition in U.S. voice networks allows carriers to retire costly, decades-old copper networks, but some consumer groups have raised concerns about power outages, forced switches and compatibility with phone-based services like alarm systems. The U.S. has about 85 million copper-based telephone lines still in operation, according to the FCC.

In addition, the FCC rules will require telecom carriers providing so-called special access services, the middle-mile network services used to deliver business broadband and mobile service backhaul, to continue to provide those services at reasonable rates. Business and consumer groups have complained to the FCC about special access rates charged by large telecom carriers for about a decade.

The FCC on Thursday also voted to release a notice seeking comment on whether it should create new standards related to VoIP service, including network reliability, voice quality and compatibility with existing alarm and medical monitoring services.

The battery backup item requires carriers to give customers the option to purchase eight hours worth of backup. That provision wasn’t controversial during Thursday’s commission meeting, but the commission’s two Republican commissioners objected to the other requirements for carriers.

The rules will limit innovation on IP voice networks and slow the transition to IP networks when IP offers several advantages, said Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai. Fiber-based networks are significantly more reliable than copper networks and offer the potential for new services, he said.

“Why is the FCC dead set on slowing [the transition] down?” he said. “Lobbyists are claiming the sky will fall if fresh fiber replaces aging, twisted pairs of copper.”

The rules extend traditional telecom regulations to lightly regulated IP services, Pai added. “The FCC now requires carriers to seek permission before discontinuing almost every network feature, no matter how little used or old fashioned,” he said. “That means the FCC gets to micromanage each and every change that the carrier makes to its network.”

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn voted to support the new rules, but she lamented that there will be no government outreach to educate consumers about the IP transition. In a 2009 transition from analog to digital television in the U.S., the government spent billions of dollars on educational outreach, when the number of affected consumers was about half of the number potentially affected by the IP transition, she said.

The rules will protect consumers and businesses who depend on telephone service, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “Changing technology is not a rationale for stifling service or competition,” he said. “Changing technology does not change responsibly.”

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