FCC looks to protect customers during voice switch to IP

Carriers would be required to give customers warning before retiring their copper-based networks, under an agency proposal

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission may require the country's telecom carriers to warn residential and business customers about their plans to abandon old, copper telephone networks for IP-based systems.

A proposal from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would also require telecom carriers retiring their copper networks to offer customers the option of purchasing battery backup systems so that they don't lose voice service during an electrical power outage, officials said Friday. IP-based voice service depends on working Internet service, which, in turn, requires electricity.

The old copper-based phone service works without electrical service available at the customer's address, and a loss of voice service during power outages is one of the major concerns of consumer groups as major telecom carriers move to retire their decades-old copper networks.

Wheeler's proposal, likely to be voted on by the commission during its Aug. 6 meeting, would require telecom providers that are retiring copper to make battery backup systems with eight hours of standby power available to affected customers, either through the carriers themselves or for third-party retailers. Voice customers would have to pay for the battery backups, which now cost about US$40 and up, but they could choose whether or not they want the backup.

Most consumers and consumer groups in contact with the FCC wanted the option to purchase battery backup from sources other than carriers, an FCC official said. Requiring battery backup systems during VoIP installs could have discouraged customers from signing up for the service, he added.

Within three years, carriers would have to offer a battery backup option with 24 hours of standby power, under the rules proposed by Wheeler.

Telecom carriers retiring their copper would also have to alert customers that their old telephone service was going away. Telecom carriers currently aren't required to notify customers, but under the proposed rules, residential customers would get a three-month warning, and business customers would get a six-month warning, agency officials said during a press briefing.

Telecom carriers would also have to notify interconnecting carriers of their copper retirement plans, and competitors using the existing copper to provide business voice and Internet services would be eligible to receive similar pricing deals from the large incumbent carriers, the FCC said.

Wheeler's proposal would also seek public comment on how to evaluate carrier proposals to retire legacy voice services. The proposal would seek comment on the impact to emergency dialing services, network reliability, quality of voice and Internet service, and other issues.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags telephonytelecommunicationvoipregulationTom WheelerU.S. Federal Communications Commissiongovernment

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