Ensuring Affordable, Reliable Communications Services

disconnected phone
Phone companies are moving from traditional copper-wire telephone technology to wireless and broadband Internet-based services and standards. This transition clearly has advantages for consumers. But the abandonment of old-fashioned wireline service also raises concerns that some existing services may become unaffordable, unreliable or unavailable altogether.

For many older adults in particular, such an outcome could have disruptive or dangerous consequences. Here are just a few of the public comments consumers filed in response to a Verizon proposal to permanently replace its copper phone network with fixed wireless service in Fire Island, N.Y. 

My emergency needs have not been considered, nor have the costs to me and other consumers of the need to buy new wireless phones and to subscribe to much more expensive wireless Internet service.

In disaster after disaster ... the power goes out, cable goes out, cellular service degrades ... or dies completely, but the traditional landline continues to operate...

We are ... ages 85 and 86 ... There are many stresses which accompany aging. Losing touch with the outside world should not be another source of worry.

Making reliable communications service available to all Americans has been a core principle of U.S. communications law since 1934. Basic protections associated with this principle helped guide the widespread deployment of affordable voice phone service over copper wires, making our society safer, more productive and more inclusive. The importance of the communications network increased as advances in technology enabled home security systems, medical alert systems and other data services to become secondary users of a consumer's phone line.

Internet-based and wireless networks can enable new applications and services, many of which have potential to help older adults live more independent lives. Many telephone customers have already given up their copper-wire telephone for cellphones or Internet-based home phone service. Many older adults, however, choose to purchase both wireline and wireless voice services.  

The two largest wireline providers, AT&T and Verizon, are eager to discontinue their older copper-based technology. They have asked regulators to speed up this transition by reducing or eliminating state and federal authority to protect consumers and perform basic oversight functions. By shedding their regulatory obligations, the companies would no longer need to maintain their copper networks.    

AT&T has petitioned federal regulators to test this technology transition in limited areas. Verizon already has a "trial" under way on Fire Island and in other areas damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Verizon has received permission on a temporary basis to replace damaged copper landline service with Voice Link - a wireless home telephone service. The telecom provider wants to make this a permanent solution on Fire Island and elsewhere, but customers appear far from satisfied. New York has received numerous complaints about poor service quality and Voice Link's inability to support important services such as DSL broadband, Life Alert systems, home security systems, collect calls or "0" access to an operator.

A national transition to state-of-the-art telecommunications networks deserves careful investigation at the federal and state levels. Consumers depend on reliable communications services for a range of needs. The transition should preserve existing functions but also produce benefits for consumers, including new services, better-quality service and affordable prices.  

Photo  courtesy of Daniel Oines/flickr 

Michael JN Bowles
Christopher Baker is a senior strategic policy adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute, where he works on policy issues related to the availability, affordability and accessibility of essential telecommunications, technology and energy services.



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