The Federal Communications Commission hasn’t yet given phone companies permission to shut down the Public Switched Telephone Network, but AT&T and Verizon are allegedly trying to get a head start on the shutdown by forcing customers to abandon landline phones.
Public Knowledge, the Utility Reform Network, and ten other consumer advocacy groups yesterday sent a letter to the FCC asking the commission to investigate a series of complaints from around the country made by customers of phone companies, primarily Verizon and AT&T.
“Complaints often state that customers are being involuntarily moved to fiber or IP-based service (or some combination thereof), even if those new technologies fail to serve all of the user’s needs or will be more expensive,” the letter said. “Denying basic phone service to people who have relied on the network for decades violates the network compact that has successfully guided our communications policy for one hundred years. A Commission investigation of these complaints is necessary to ensure the continued vitality of the fundamental values that underlie our network, including universal service.”
The FCC is expected to give permission to the phone companies to stop maintaining the old networks somewhere around 2020, potentially bringing an end to the century-old regulations that guaranteed universal service and other consumer protections. AT&T and Verizon are arguing for extensive deregulation as landlines are fully replaced by Internet-based voice service, but the FCC hasn’t yet decided what rules should apply to the new phone network.
The letter from consumer advocacy groups (including public interest agencies who are part of the governments in Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington, DC), pointed to numerous instances of phone companies being accused of not fixing copper networks and pressuring customers to give up landlines. These include incidents we’ve covered at Ars, such as Verizon’s aborted attempt to kill wireline phone service in Fire Island, New York and accusations that Verizon refused to fix copper in California.
The letter pointed to other incidents as well. “The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has also told the Commission that complaints received by their office indicate some customers ‘are being moved off TDM [time-division multiplexing] service when the quality of service deteriorates, and some are being told that TDM, or traditional telephone service, is no longer available to them,’" the letter said. "For example, according [to] one complaint, a customer was moved off her basic phone service to AT&T’s IP U-verse Voice service when she requested repair for static on her line, resulting in a $99.00 connection fee and substantially higher monthly bills."
Illinois officials also reported complaints "over service quality issues like noise, static, lack of dial tone, phantom outbound calls, inaccurate or inoperable special features, and multiple people on the same line. Complaints in Illinois also indicated customers have been told they could not purchase standalone basic phone service, and marketing efforts from the carriers to consumers indicated they had no choice but to move onto new networks."
In Washington, DC, Verizon’s alleged “refusal to repair or upgrade its infrastructure… hindered DC residents’ ability to use the copper lines for voice service, Life Alerts, and other important services," the letter said.
“As the nation’s communications networks undergo a transition to IP-based technology and new physical infrastructure, the Commission has made it clear this transition must be conducted responsibly and must leave everyone better off,” the consumer advocacy groups’ letter said. "But now, the Commission is at risk of losing control of the network transition by allowing carriers to push their customers off of the traditional networks—in violation of their obligations as telecommunications carriers—simply to cut costs or push customers into higher-cost services or packages, generating more revenue for the carrier.”
The FCC's oversight is especially important in states that have passed laws limiting their regulatory authority over telephone service, the groups argued.
The letter also said:
The Commission must begin investigating this issue quickly, lest inaction send carriers the message that abandoning customers in violation of their legal obligations is acceptable. Delay will only lead to carriers hanging up on more customers at a time when basic communications service is more important than ever.
The problems that have garnered public attention so far are geographically widespread, and the Commission must take seriously the likelihood that these problems are occurring in many more states, leaving an unknown number of people with substandard basic communications service. This state of affairs is unacceptable. The Commission must now assert its leadership in this area, work with states where consumers are being denied adequate basic service, investigate places where customers are losing reliable basic voice service, and ensure that our country is living up to its commitment to provide basic communications service to everyone.
We contacted the FCC, AT&T, and Verizon today, but we haven't yet received any specific responses.