As U.S. incumbent phone giants shut off their legacy copper networks and migrate to next-generation, fiber-based infrastructure, the nation’s top communications regulator is seeking to ensure that rival telecom operators have continued access to their customers.
Carriers seeking to discontinue a service that is relied upon for wholesale access should be required to provide rivals equivalent wholesale access, according to a proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. He also proposed to his fellow FCC commissioners that the agency update its rules so competitive carriers receive adequate notice that a copper network is going dark.
During a meeting on Nov. 21, the FCC is expected to consider various items related to the transition to next-generation networks and the commission’s goal of preserving consumer protection, competition and public safety.
Competitive carriers’ ability to reach customers such as businesses and schools could be threatened if incumbent phone companies withdraw access to the last mile of their networks, an FCC official said Friday on a call with reporters.
Chip Pickering, CEO of CompTel, a trade association that represents the competitive telecom industry, agreed.
“To foster robust competition in the business market, there must be sound policies that ensure wholesale access to the last mile. Any evolution in transmission technology does not change that fundamental fact,” he said, adding, “As the commission proceeds, it must ensure that incumbents do not exploit their transition to IP technologies as a way to diminish or eliminate the wholesale access to last-mile connections on which competitors rely to serve business customers.”
Representatives of AT&T, Verizon and USTelecom, a trade organization representing incumbent carriers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wheeler’s proposal.
FCC officials on Friday discussed the transition to new services and a separate Wheeler proposal aimed at ensuring access to 911 services as networks evolve. All the issues will be teed up during the FCC’s November meeting.
The FCC also wants to hold accountable companies that are responsible for emergency services, particularly in the wake of prominent network outages that have left Americans without access to 911. A report recently released by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau detailed outages in April caused by a software glitch that resulted in a loss of 911 service for more than 11 million people. During the outage, which lasted for up to six hours, some 6,600 calls to 911 failed to reach so-called PSAPs or public safety answering points. The outage affected 81 PSAPs in California, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington.
“What is most troubling is that this is not an isolated incident or an act of nature,” the report declared. “So-called ‘sunny day’ outages are on the rise. That’s because, as 911 has evolved into a system that is more technologically advanced, the interaction of new and old systems is introducing fragility into the communications system that is more important in times of dire need.”
The FCC has cited other outages in Hawaii and Vermont as well as a nationwide outage that affected more than 40 million people.
As it relates to 911 services, the old copper network has a distinct advantage over next-generation services. When the power goes out at home, consumers still can reach emergency responders because the copper network provides power to the traditional phones, an FCC official explained. Fiber networks, on the other hand, don’t provide power to handsets, the FCC official said, requiring consumers to have backup power at home.
Wheeler has proposed measures the FCC could implement to oversee new backup power systems, as well as whether the FCC should adopt specific backup requirements. He further wants to consider the extent to which consumers and their providers are responsible for ensuring that there is backup power in homes to support IP communications.