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Discussion over the "IP transition" has taken a back seat in the media lately as news outlets focus on the question of local authority over the right to invest in fiber network infrastructure. The IP transition is the gradual change from older analog mostly copper networks to packet-switched IP approaches that may use any medium (copper, fiber, wireless, etc). Some big carriers, like AT&T, are pushing to change the traditional rules applied to telephony and telecommunications as part of this technological change.
In October, Kojo Nnamdi interviewed Jodie Griffin from Public Knowledge, Technology Reporter Brian Fung, and Rick Boucher, a lobbyist from the Sidney Austin law firm. The show, The Future of Phone Service, is archived and available for you to hear.
As technology creates options for how we speak with each other, rules, regulations, and policies must also stay current. In this interview, Nnamdi and his guests touch on some of the basic concerns we face moving forward. From the WAMU show description:
American phone companies began laying the nation’s vast copper wire telecom network in the 1800s. But today less than one-third of the country uses the old copper lines, and a mere 5 percent rely on them exclusively. The advent of fiber optic cable and wireless phone service makes the copper network obsolete. We explore the fate of landline phone service and concerns about pricing, safety and access as the nation transitions to an all-digital phone future.
If you are interested in learning more about the pros and cons in the IP transition debate, we encourage you to visit Public Knowledge's IP Transition issue page. They provide legal, anecdotal, and statistical data. PK also provides an advocacy toolkit to help you understand the transition and give you the info you need to defend your rights.
Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.
Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.
In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:
It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.
Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.
AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.
The war over keeping copper alive rages on in New York with more stealthy antics from Verizon. Stop the Cap! now reports that, rather than wait for a hurricane to take out the copper lines in the Catskills, it will quietly shift seasonal home owners to VoiceLink as they request reconnection. Stop the Cap! also published a letter [PDF] from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) who allege Verizon has also been installing VoiceLink in the City.
We recently visited this drama with Harold Feld from Public Knowledge on Broadband Bits podcast #52. He and Christopher discussed the issue as it applies to Fire Island in New York and Barrier Island in New Jersey. Verizon has permission from the New York Public Services Commission (NYPSC) to use the VoiceLink product in place of copper wires on a temporary basis as a way to get service to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Seven months is a long time to go without phone service.
Our readers know that VoiceLink short changes users, especially those that rely on phone connections for Life Alert, want to use phone cards, or want the security of reliable 911 service. Feld also noted in his Tales from the Sausage Factory blog, that Verizon was rumored to be making secret plans to expand VoiceLink well beyond the islands, regardless of the limitations of the NYPSC order.
Victims of Sandy are still recovering from the killer storm that ripped through the east coast last year. Two places hardest hit by the "Frankenstorm" were Fire Island, New York and the Barrier Island in New Jersey. In addition to homes and property, residents lost phone and Internet communications when telephone wires went down. They are still waiting to be reconnected.
Our readers know about the huge fight that has embroiled consumer advocates and the leading telephone providers in the past few years. AT&T and Verizon seek deregulation to escape the "carrier of last resort" obligation that requires maintenance of traditional copper lines for telephone service. AT&T and Verizon want to shed that responsibility in favor of wireless service that is less expensive to maintain, even though it does not support the range of uses today's copper networks do.
Verizon is the incumbent telephone provider in Fire Island and Barrier Island but decided it will not repair damaged lines. It wants to instead deploy its inferior Voice Link wireless service on the island.
The Voice Link technology basically attaches to your house and uses Verizon's cellular network to connect the telephones in your home. Homeowners can continue to use their home phones, but the quality tends to be worse than on a proper wired telephone network.
Under federal law, telephone providers are obligated to replace or repair downed copper lines unless they substitute with a "line improvement," such as fiber-optic lines. Voice Link cannot be described as a "line improvement" - the only benefit it provides is that it costs Verizon less to build and maintain.
Earlier this year we reported on SB 88 in the Kentucky legislature. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Paul Hornback and authored by AT&T, would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement and reduced consumer protections. A similar bill in 2011 was also defeated by a coalition of public interest groups.
This is one of a series of bills crafted by AT&T and ALEC that has been explained in great depth by the National Regulatory Research Institute in their 2012 review [pdf] as well as by Bruce Kushnick in this report [pdf].
Advocates on the side of consumers, including ILSR, were happy to see the bill defeated in the House. Though AT&T will undoubtedly be back again in future years, this victory shows the massive corporate carriers are vulnerable. In addition to blocking harmful deregulation, this is an example of how an organized coalition can protect the public interest.
I spoke with Mimi Pickering, Director of the Appalshop Community Media Initiative in Whitesburg, Kentucky. She described how local groups defeated the bill with the facts. Appalshop teamed up with nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council (KRC), AARP Kentucky, the AFL-CIO, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and several other groups. The coalition explained the complexities of the proposal and spelled out what could happen to landline service without consumer protections.
Kentucky Coalition Takes Down AT&T Bill to Remove Consumer Phone Protections - Community Broadband Bits #44
Last year, we reported on the failed SB 135, which would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement in the state. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Paul Hornback would have let AT&T decide who could receive basic telephone service and would have limited consumer protections.
Last year's bill did not become law, but a progeny, SB 88, has already passed in the Kentucky Senate and was received in the House on February 15th. (We'd like to report what committee will hear it first but the Kentucky Legislative web has not yet published that information.) Senator Hornback is again the chief author of the bill, crafted by AT&T and its ALEC pals.
The Kentucky Resources Council (KRC) provides an analysis of SB 88 and a prognosis on how it would affect Kentuckians. KRC must be feeling deja vu, as are many organizations looking out for rural dwellers who depend on their landlines. These bills continue to be introduced year after year as large telecommunications companies spend millions of lobbying dollars, also year after year.
WMMT, Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky, recently reported on the legislation. Sylvia Ryerson spoke with Tom Fitzgerald from KRC, who discussed the analysis. From KRC's report on the legislation:
At potential risk is the opportunity for existing and new customers, to obtain stand-along basic telephone services from the incumbent telephone utility, or “Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS)” as it is called. Those most adversely affected by this loss of access to basic, stand-alone, telephone service are those least able to obtain affordable and reliable alternatives – those who live in rural, lower density areas, and the poor in dense, urbanized areas who have no affordable alternative priced as low as POTS.
Once again, consumers must fight to preserve their landline telephone service. This time, the Ohio General Assembly is pondering legislation that can end traditional service for up to 1 million Ohio residents.
Our readers know about the efforts of ALEC and AT&T to drastically reduce their obligation to provide landlines across the country. Up to now, telephone companies were required to serve everyone, but those requirements are under attack, state by state. Bills have emerged in Mississippi, Kentucky, New Jersey and California.
The very real fear is that Ohio's Senate Bill 271 (SB271) will increase telephone prices, reduce service quality, and cause many to lose access to reliable 911 service. Many of those who still depend on landlines, include senior citizens. From an article on the Public New Service:
AARP Ohio State Director Bill Sundermeyer says, besides preserving social contact, land-line phones are needed to protect seniors' health and safety. For instance, some seniors use the phone line to transmit routine health information from equipment in their home to their doctor's office, he says.
"They can make an evaluation of a person's heart and how's it working, of their lungs, etc. That information would be very difficult to transmit over a cell phone."
(on a personal note, I can attest to this….my father routinely uses his landline telephone to send data to the clinic about his pacemaker to make sure it is functioning correctly)
The Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC) also expresses concern with the bill because it would allow telephone companies to stop providing local service in places labeled as "fully competitive." In the SB271 Fact Sheet (read the PDF, which offers a map of the qualifying areas), the OCC explains the problem with this definition:
Northern District Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley is unhappy with a new state law that will strip oversight over AT&T. Presley plans to personally file suit in Hinds County Circuit Court against the law, calling it unconstitutional. “It violates the state constitution,” Presley said of the bill during an interview with the Daily Journal. “There’s no doubt AT&T is the biggest in the state, and this bill will allow them to raise rates without any oversight at all.” House Bill 825 strips away rate regulation of Mississippi landline service and removes the oversight powers the PSC formerly had to request financial data and statistics dealing with service outages and consumer complaints. The law also permits AT&T to abandon rural Mississippi landline customers at will.As we've seen elsewhere (as in California), AT&T worked with ALEC to push this through - though Rep Beckett (R-Bruce) doesn't think AT&T will raise its rates or abandon parts of the state. Time will tell - but Beckett won't be the one to suffer when the inevitable occurs. Thanks to AT&T and ALEC, he already got his.