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The Future of Our Communications Networks: Strong Enough to Weather Us Through the Storm?

121030-F-AL508-159 Aerial views during an Army search and rescue mission show damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, Oct. 30, 2012

Damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey Coast

A year ago this week, Superstorm Sandy wrought unprecedented damage up and down the East Coast. The rest of the nation watched as residents in the line of the storm documented destruction in real time online, and reached out to emergency services and loved ones, demonstrating the vital necessity of a resilient communications infrastructure.

One year later, do these residents have what they need to prepare for the next storm? Judging by how Verizon rebuilt phone service in the storm-ravaged communities of the Northeast, the outlook is grim.

In Fire Island, NY, Verizon, the monopoly provider of the community, informed residents that it was too expensive to replace the traditional copper-line phone network that had been destroyed. Instead, the telecom giant said they would replace these networks with Voice Link, claiming this to be the wireless technology of the future.

Voice Link failed in Fire Island. Residents complained about Voice Link’s spotty reception and unreliable connections. Small businesses pointed out it didn’t work with security systems and many credit card machines. DSL Internet was no longer available. After a public outcry, Verizon decided not to use Fire Islanders as guinea pigs and offered them Verizon’s high quality fiber optic wired network FiOS instead.

But this hasn’t stopped Verizon from forcing the technology downgrade upon other communities. As the New York Times reported this month, New Jersey is suffering the same abuse at the hands of Voice Link. And these are just “test communities” that are part of a broader technological shift happening in the United States known as the “IP transition“.

Voice Link’s lackluster performance raises concerns that similar wireless services will be unreliable—especially in a storm, when reliability matters most. And this isn’t the only problem critics have with the transition. Traditional phone networks come with strong consumer protections. For example, most states require phone service to be offered to all homes, and enforce quality standards for this service. There are also policies regulating privacy, billing, competition, and connectivity between networks. New wireless services like Voice Link are largely unregulated, making them very appealing for telecom companies like Verizon, and very problematic for consumers.

These regulations were put in place specifically for the traditional copper phone system. If this system needs to be modernized in light of technological advancement, as the industry contends and many public interest advocates agree, consumer protections need to adjust accordingly. If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t proactively address this change, consumers will at best be inconvenienced, and at worst be in danger, without communication when it is needed most.

This week, congruent with the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss concerns related to the IP transition. Harold Feld, senior VP of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, listed five fundamentals of a nationwide phone network that must remain in place; service to all Americans, interconnection and competition, consumer protection, reliability, and public safety. Feld wrote in his testimony:

“We have enjoyed the benefits of a ubiquitous, reliable, affordable telephone network for so long that we take it for granted. We have forgotten that these things did not happen by accident. The telephone system we rely on today works the way it does because we made policy choices based on our fundamental values. The features of the phone system we depend on: service to all Americans, interconnection and competition, consumer protection, reliability and public safety could disappear tomorrow if we decide these values no longer matter.”

As Feld pointed out, Americans have an expectation that their phones will work reliably, so they can call loved ones across networks, operate their small business, or contact emergency services. Industry leaders, Congress, and consumer advocates have all asked the FCC to manage this inevitable technological advancement, already in progress, and the FCC has taken some initial steps. But there is much work to be done. Let’s hope it will not take another natural disaster to prompt the FCC to ensure the safety and consumer protections of our communications networks.

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