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Several Organizations Ask The FCC To Investigate Telephone Company Complaints In Many States

Federal communications Commission logo Last week, Public Knoledge and eleven other consumer advocacy organizations sent a joint letter to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking it to investigate consumer complaints in several states about wired telephone services. The letter was addressed to Julie A Vesch, Chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau at the FCC.

The organizations includes state agencies and consumer advocacy groups. The organizations sent their joint letter:

" express concern about reports that have surfaced across the country indicating carriers are forcing customers off of traditional copper-based phone service. Complaints often state that customers are being involuntarily moved to fiber or IP-based service (or some combination thereof), even if those new technologies fail to serve all of the user’s needs or will be more expensive. Denying basic phone service to people who have relied on the network for decades violates the network compact that has successfully guided our communications policy for one hundred years. A Commission investigation of these complaints is necessary to ensure the continued vitality of the fundamental values that underlie our network, including universal service."

The FCC oversees the transition of the country from older, copper, wired telephone lines to newer technologies (e.g., fiber, Internet phone a/k/a "IP-based") that offer telephone services, television services, and faster Internet access. The FCC defined "universal service" as:

"... the principle that all Americans should have access to communications services. Universal service is also the name of a fund and the category of FCC programs and policies to implement this principle. Universal service is a cornerstone of the law that established the FCC, the Communications Act of 1934. Since that time, universal service policies have helped make telephone service ubiquitous, even in remote rural areas. Today, the FCC recognizes high-speed Internet as the 21st Century’s essential communications technology, and is working to make broadband as ubiquitous as voice, while continuing to support voice service... "

This principle is important because it ensure that everyone gets phone service; especially residents in rural areas. Providing phone service to rural residents is often more expensive due to the larger distances between residences and decreased density of residents. Many of the wired telephone service complaints have come from rural residents. Telephone companies are still legally bound to maintain cooper, wired phone services.

Some consumers may wonder what the fuss is about, or believe believe that everyone should just switch to the newer and wireless technologies. Reality is more complicated. Many consumers use wired phone lines with a variety of services (e.g., elders alerts, disabilities/TTY, home security systems) not necessarily supported by alternatives. Despite the lack of mobility, landlines have benefits: a) no dropped calls or no lost signals; b) no batteries to re-charge; and d) don't require electricity to make and receive phone calls -- a convenience during electric power outages.

Public Knowledge and the following organizations signed the joint letter to the FCC:

In their letter, the organizations emphasized the need for action soon by the FCC:

"The Commission must begin investigating this issue quickly, lest inaction send carriers the message that abandoning customers in violation of their legal obligations is acceptable. Delay will only lead to carriers hanging up on more customers at a time when basic communications service is more important than ever... Reports of carriers pushing customers off of the traditional phone network have sprung up across the country... The nationwide pattern of complaints that has arisen makes it incumbent on the Commission to investigate these allegations and ensure no customer is being wrongfully denied basic phone service. The Commission must act to protect network users nationwide, in states both with and without relevant state regulatory authority."

Legal action has already begun in some states (bold added):

"The Utility Reform Network (TURN) has filed a motion before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) asking the CPUC to prevent Verizon from letting the quality of its copper network deteriorate and from pushing customers from copper -based service to FiOS or Voice Link. TURN’s motion also sets out evidence that Verizon’s actions in California are part of a national strategy affecting customers, including in New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. Previously, a CPUC Communications Division report in 2011 found that in California AT&T, Verizon, and Frontier, among other carriers, did not meet the Out-of-Service repair standard during any month in 2010. Based on this report and other complaints from consumer advocates, the CPUC issued an Order Instituting Rulemaking to ensure California residents have access to service that meets at least a basic level of service quality.

In Maryland, the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO filed a letter with the Maryland Public Service Commission alleging, upon information and belief, that Verizon was planning to deploy Voice Link as a replacement for copper-based service in parts of Maryland. The Maryland Office of People’s Counsel (Maryland OPC) has also previously testified that Verizon routinely migrates customers from the copper network to unregulated services with inadequate procedures for customer notice and consent... In New York, the State Attorney General has asked the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC) to stop Verizon from moving customers in the Catskills to the fixed wireless service Voice Link instead of repairing its copper lines...

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has also told the Commission that complaints received by their office indicate some customers “are being moved off TDM service when the quality of service deteriorates, and some are being told that TDM, or traditional telephone service, is no longer available to them... The Illinois Attorney General’s Office also reported complaints over service quality issues like noise, static, lack of dial tone, phantom outbound calls, inaccurate or inoperable special features, and multiple people on the same line. Complaints in Illinois also indicated customers have been told they could not purchase standalone basic phone service..."

To learn more about the fight about wired telephone services in New York State, read this New York Times article about Verizon.

Unfortunately, it seems that legal action is required in several states to make telephone companies do what they are obligated to do. After reading this letter, it seems that the large telephone companies want to transition sooner from copper, and rid themselves of the requirement -- and costs -- to provide universal service. Forcing customers to unwanted services without consent is unacceptable and needs to stop.

ARS Technica reported:

"The FCC is expected to give permission to the phone companies to stop maintaining the old networks somewhere around 2020, potentially bringing an end to the century-old regulations that guaranteed universal service and other consumer protections. AT&T and Verizon are arguing for extensive deregulation as landlines are fully replaced by Internet-based voice service, but the FCC hasn’t yet decided what rules should apply to the new phone network."

Read the organizations' entire letter to the FCC (Adobe PDF).

Were you forced off wired phone service? If so, share your experiences below. Please describe any fees or surcharges you were billed, and if your monthly bills for replacement phone services were higher.


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