Speak Your Piece: A Silent Storm

Changes in communications technology make telephone networks more vulnerable to outages during severe weather. Telecommunications companies are pushing for less regulatory accountability at the time consumers need it more than ever.

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People who live in hurricane-prone areas have a lot on their minds this time of year – evacuation routes, emergency supplies, property protection. Changes in communication technology mean they have one more thing to think about: ensuring that their primary telephone connection operates, even when the power is off.

The old, copper-wire telephone landlines many of us are accustomed to can work even when household electricity is off. That’s because the electricity to power them flows through the same wires that carry the phone signal. If the phone is connected to the network, it automatically has power.

But this isn’t true for the emerging phone systems that use wireless and the Internet as the network backbone. Mobile phones will work only as long as the battery holds a charge, assuming nearby cell towers are operating. And newer Internet-based phone systems – like those provided through AT&T’s U-verse of Comcast’s Xfinity – won’t work without household power or a backup power. The electronic components that connect those phones to the Internet – using voice over Internet protocol or VOIP – need a separate power supply. If the Internet modem doesn't work, neither does the phone.

The problem is that many residents living in areas vulnerable to hurricanes don’t know this change is happening. Telephone providers don’t always tell their consumers about these changes. Consumers don’t know what to expect from new fiber or wireless technologies. And telecommunications companies aren’t necessarily providing affordable backup power options.

Instead, telephone providers are letting their copper lines rot, which causes erodes call quality. When their customers call to complain, a representative upsells them on a “better” service such as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) or wireless. If you are a diligent consumer with Internet access who understands technology, you can investigate the benefits and setbacks of the new service on the telephone provider’s website.

When a hurricane makes landfall, the communications network is critical for public safety officials, emergency responders, and residents. This is when the scruples of your telephone provider are judged – did they explain the reliability of your new phone service? Did they inform you that you need a backup battery? Did they make the battery easily available and affordable enough, especially if you’re on a tight budget?

During this stage of a hurricane, the backup battery a telephone requires is your lifeline. If the hurricane cut off power, you still need a phone that can connect you to 911. If the hurricane breaks your windows and you need to find shelter, or the water rises to the second floor and you need to be rescued, or your grandfather has a medical emergency, and the power is out, you’ll need the backup battery to reach help.

After the hurricane, the reliability of our communications network is once again tested. The metric is this: How quickly does it allow Americans to get back on their feet? If basic infrastructure – roads, waterways, bridges, hospitals, and businesses – suffered damage, emergency personnel need to be able to coordinate rescue, clean up, and rebuilding. Unreliable communications channels will make rebuilding more difficult.

Traditionally, when a telephone company wants to make a change to their network that affects customers, it must first obtain permission from the state public utilities commission and the Federal Communications Commission. Shamefully, one strategy that a telephone carrier took to avoid fulfilling proper notification to state and federal agencies and the public was to change the network after a hurricane destroyed it. After Hurricane Sandy struck Fire Island, Comcast did not notify residents, the New York Utilities Commission, or the FCC that it would replace the old copper network with wireless service. As Fire Islanders returned to their daily lives, they realized their telephones weren’t working and were not compatible with medical alarm devices or financial equipment that businesses needed. Public outcry forced the state utilities commission to investigate the matter and force Comcast to provide service that was comparable to the old system, Comcast agreed to offer fiber-based service but continued to claim that it was not required to notify anybody of that change.

States are even taking a step further by stripping public utilities commissions of the authority to resolve consumer complaints on telephone service. This means that the FCC is becoming the only agency the public can call to file complaints about the unreliability of their telephone service.

Increasingly, it does not take a hurricane to bring down a communications network. The technologies being introduced, while cheaper to deploy, also introduce new vulnerabilities to the network. A simple thunderstorm can interfere with wireless connectivity, and technical glitches have been reported to disrupt communications networks across several days in perfect weather conditions (these have the cute name of “sunny-day outages”).

It is great that we are developing new technologies that can be deployed with less investment, but we should work to ensure these new technologies reach everyone in our nation. At the same time, we must assess the vulnerabilities new technologies introduce to our communications system and ensure that a change in technology does not leave Americans unprepared or in danger.

Earlier this month the FCC passed new rules that require telecommunications companies to be more forthcoming with consumers about technology changes. More rules are on the way. It’s a first step. Meanwhile, the first hurricane of the 2015 season could be forming in the Atlantic.

Edyael Casaperalta recently completed a fellowship in Internet rights at Public Knowledge. She is a founder of the Rural Broadband Policy Group of the National Rural Assembly.

 

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