Tech Transition Threatens Rural Consumers

The conversion to new digital communications systems creates special challenges for rural communities to stay safe and connected. Rural residents go to Capitol Hill to brief congressional staff on how the technology transition is affecting rural areas.

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If Congress ever had to vote on whether the U.S. should slash its 9-1-1 emergency system to reduce features, decrease reliability, and make it harder for people to use, the result would be obvious.

“No member of Congress would ever take a public position supporting this change,” said Randy MacDonald with the Comptche Volunteer Fire Department in Mendocino County on California's northern coast.

“But this is what is happening to America’s 9-1-1 system.”

MacDonald said changes in technology are creating dangerous weak spots in the nation’s 9-1-1 system, making it harder to use, less reliable, and interfering with critical lifesaving features like enhanced 9-1-1, which provides dispatchers with the caller’s location.

The deficiencies are the result of changes in communications technology, which sees telecommunications companies and consumers moving to cell phones and Internet calling services, instead of traditional copper wire systems that have been around for a century or more.

While these new technologies offer opportunities for new emergency services, they also create gaps that threaten lives, MacDonald said.

For example, part of Mendocino County lost telecommunications last year when a fiber-optic cable broke. Because the line had no back up, a 40-mile section of the county lost some services, MacDonald said. The 45-hour outage killed 911 services and affected firefighters attempting to put out a major wildfire, he said.

For some, the break was life threatening, MacDonald said, quoting a person whose mother had a medical emergency during the outage. This customer lost phone service but still had an Internet connection.

“My mother quit breathing and it took me quite a while to get Skype up and running while continuing mouth-to-mouth and trying to reach a friend to call 9-1-1 for me. It was hell.” The woman recovered.

MacDonald’s comments were part of a briefing on Capitol Hill last week designed to give congressional staff an overview of how the transition to digital technology like Internet calling and mobile phones is affecting rural consumers. The event, coordinated by the National Rural Assembly, the Rural Broadband Policy Group, and Public Knowledge, drew a standing-room only crowd to a House committee room. (Discloure: The National Rural Assembly is managed by the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.)

The office of U.S. Representative Jared Huffman, D, sponsored the briefing. Huffman's district, the 2nd, covers the northern coast of California.

MacDonald had three suggestions for Congress as it considers telecommunications policy:

  • Put public safety first.
  • Ensure that new digital networks are at least as sturdy and reliable as the old copper-wire system.
  • And do a better job of informing Americans that expanded choices in telecommunications can also make them more vulnerable during emergencies.

Whitney Kimball Coe with the National Rural Assembly agreed that consumer education needs to be a priority.

“The Rural Broadband Policy Group polled National Rural Assembly participants on what they knew about the tech transition, and the answer was not much,” she said. Three-quarters of rural respondents in the informal survey didn’t know what kind of technology their phone used, she said.

Getting consumers educated about the changes is going to take cooperation among law makers, the Federal Communications Commission, and telecommunications companies, she said. “We need all these parties involved if we’re going to carry out the phone transition in a way that doesn’t leave folks behind,” said Coe, who lives in Athens, Tennessee.   

Sharell Harmon with YouthBuild USA said broadband connections are critical for rural youth seeking education and employment.

The resident of Elkins, West Virginia, said the YouthBuild Rural Caucus, a group of 21 young people from nine states, recommended expanding the federal Lifeline program to include Internet access. Lifeline provides discounted telephone service to low-income households.

“We believe this would go a long way to help rural communities and rural youth,” Harmon said.

Mimi Pickering, an Appalshop filmmaker and media organizer from Whitesburg, Kentucky, said Kentucky's recent deregulation of some rural phone lines will cause reliability and service problems for residents. In Kentucky, as in numerous other states, phone companies have gotten state legislatures to eliminate or reduce state regulations on the old copper-line systems that people have relied on for generations.

“Rural Kentuckians are worried about what will happen during power outages, which are frequent and often long-lasting occurrences,” she said. “Internet and wireless phones don’t work without electricity, or they operate on batteries which must be charged. Landlines have been our lifeline during these critical situations.”

But consumer protections that applied to the copper-line system, like universal service requirements, won’t necessarily be available with new technologies, she said.

Regina Coster with The Utility Reform Network (TURN) of California said the transition to digital is affecting telephone calls going from metropolitan to rural areas. “Rural call completion” is a well documented issue that the Federal Communications Commission addressed with new rules last year. Congress needs to do more to give the FCC and states the power to regulate calls that travel through digital channels like Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), Coster said.

Moderator Edyael Casaperalta with Public Knowledge and the Rural Broadband Policy Group said Congress needs to focus on values, no matter what technological changes occur.  She encouraged congressional staff to “reaffirm the fundamental values that have created our nearly ubiquitous communications network – service to all Americans, reliability, consumer protections, public safety, and competition.”

 

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