Consumer Groups Complain That AT&T, Verizon Force Customers Off Basic Phone Service

Several organizations this week called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate complaints that telecommunications companies are forcing customers off traditional phone service.

The letter was sent to the FCC as the agency considers overseeing trials that could pave the way for U.S. phone companies to entirely phase out their legacy copper networks.

“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,” according to the May 12 letter signed by representatives of Public Knowledge, The Utility Reform Network, The National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, Office of the People’s Counsel, District of Columbia, State of New Jersey, Division of the Rate Counsel, Appalshop, The Benton Foundation, Rural Broadband Policy Group and the National Consumer Law Center. “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 100 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 organizations identified complaints that involved AT&T and Verizon. For instance, the letter cited a request last year by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, asking that the New York Public Service Commission stop Verizon from moving customers in the Catskills to a fixed wireless service rather than repairing its copper lines. In an emergency petition filed on June 26, 2013, Schneiderman alleged Verizon installed its Voice Link service to seasonal customers in the Catskills beyond the scope of what the New York Public Service Commission had authorized due to special circumstances connected to the damage from the deadly and destructive hurricane, Superstorm Sandy.

“As we upgrade our networks, we continue to provide our customers with the option of receiving the same regulated POTS service, at the same price, over fiber facilities that they received over copper facilities,” said Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden, commenting on the letter from Public Knowledge and others. “We work closely with our customers to address any concerns or issues they may have.”

AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter, which cited a complaint from an Illinois customer who alleged the telecommunications company moved her off basic phone service to its IP U-verse voice service when she requested a repair. According to the complaint, AT&T charged the woman a $99 connection fee and significantly higher phone bills.

“Complaints in Illinois also indicated customers have been told they could not purchase standalone basic phone service, and marketing efforts from the carriers to consumers indicated they had no choice but to move onto new networks,” the letter declared.

The consumer groups reached out to the FCC at a time when AT&T is seeking permission from the agency to conduct trials in the Deep South as part of a long-term plan to phase out its legacy network. According to the telecom giant, more than 70 percent of consumers in its 22-state territory have nixed POTS, otherwise known as plain old telephone service. AT&T has said it is seeking relief from burdensome and outdated regulations that effectively bar the company from retiring its time-division multiplexing (TDM)-based network in many states.”

The FCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

In a May 7 blog posting, an FCC official said the agency supports the transition to new networks but reiterated the agency’s role under the Communications Act to protect consumers and advance public safety, universal service and competition.

“The FCC supports the transition to fiber and other next-generation networks while ensuring that the core values entrusted to us by Congress remain in place,” wrote Julie Veach, chief of the FCC’s wireline competition bureau. “We intend to monitor technology transitions closely to assess how communications providers are maintaining this balance and to keep consumers informed.  If we find that core values are not being maintained in these transitions, then it is the FCC’s responsibility to protect customers consistent with what Congress told us to do.”

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