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As Landline Phones Disappear, Some Voice Concerns

Not only are landlines more reliable during disasters, rural residents and the elderly are concerned about the new generation of phone services that will likely be less regulated.

More than a dozen years ago, America had a record high 186 million phones that operated over copper wires. Since then, more than 100 million have been disconnected, according to the trade group US Telecom. Today, nearly two in five Americans (38.5 percent) use only wireless phones in their home, according to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For young Americans ages 25-29, the numbers are even higher: 6 in 10 don’t have a landline and rely only on their cell phones.

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Traditional phone companies, known as incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), have lost 70 percent of their residential phone business to wireless and cable carriers, reports US Telecom. The days of plain old telecom services are drawing to a close, soon to be replaced entirely by wireless and cable communications. The demise of traditional phone service has been so dramatic that AT&T wants to dismantle its entire network of copper landlines by the end of the decade, according to the Associated Press; and Verizon, the nation’s second largest landline phone company has received permission from New York state to replace traditional wire lines with its Voice Link wireless service in areas where phone services were washed out by Hurricane Sandy.

The phasing out of old phone technology is happening with support from state legislatures. So far, 25 states have passed legislation “eliminating or reducing state commission authority over telecommunications by the end of the 2012 legislative session,” according to the National Regulatory Research Institute (NRRI). By the end of 2013, several more states—Indiana, Nevada, Tennessee and Wyoming—are expected to do the same. “Should the legislation pending in the 2013 sessions be enacted, nearly 70 percent of the country will have significantly reduced or eliminated commission jurisdiction over retail communication services, such as VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and other IP-enabled services, ” according to an NRRI report. In other words, the new generation of phone services will be decidedly less regulated than the landlines they're replacing.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission’s new chairman, Tom Wheeler, has announced his intent to take up the issue of letting phone companies phase out landlines in favor of wireless and Internet-based phone service. Wheeler has set up a transition task force, which will take up the issue in December.

But just because wireless and broadband phone service has been embraced by a wide swath of Americans doesn’t mean everyone is ready to say goodbye to their landlines.

Verizon customers on Fire Island, N.Y., who lost their phone service from Sandy and have had their landlines replaced by the company’s Voice Link technology, have complained about dropped lines and inconsistent connectivity. The Voice Link box doesn’t work with some remote medical monitoring devices, home alarm systems and faxes nor can it accept collect calls or connect callers with an operator. For small businesses, the boxes don’t work with credit card machines.

Old fashioned phone lines also don’t stop working when power goes out, making them a reliable form of communications in an era when monster storms that can knock out power for days have become the new norm.

“This is old-school, but there are plenty of instances where the cable goes out, the electricity goes out and the phone network is there,” Rob Frieden, a professor of telecommunications and law at Penn State, told National Public Radio.

Rural phone customers complain that phone carriers have raised landline rates, while letting maintenance to deteriorate, as wires and switches reach the end of their life. Along with rural callers, the elderly are also likely to still use landlines and suffer from any drop in service quality.

That’s why AARP has called on Pennsylvania’s lawmakers to reject a bill that would deregulate phone service, remove consumer protections and possibly lead to higher phone charges for existing landlines. The consumer advocacy group cited a study that showed 94 percent of Pennsylvania residents who are 50 or older are satisfied with their landline service and 54 percent are concerned about affording a landline in the next three years. The same survey showed that 84 percent of rural Pennsylvanians over the age of 50 oppose the deregulation bill.

The phone companies have responded by saying that a less-regulated marketplace will give them the leeway to build a more robust, up-to-date service that competes with wireless and cable providers.

The solution to the opposing views on the future of phone service may lie in accepting the shift to new technology, but crafting a viable transition plan that doesn’t alienate segments of the population still wedded to landlines, says Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based public interest telecommunications advocacy group. In a recent blog, Feld wrote, “Instead of looking at state and federal oversight of the transitions as a negative, people need to recognize that state and federal oversight are what prevent potential disasters like Fire Island from going critical.”

Public Knowledge favors the upgrade currently underway with the nation’s phone system, but says government needs to make sure the new system has the same social values that made the traditional phone system such a success for more than 100 years. Feld is hopeful that FCC Chairman Wheeler will keep in mind the four values that have informed communications law over the decades: public safety, universal access, competition and consumer protection.

With the FCC’s Transition Task Force holding giving its first status report on Dec. 12, we should soon know for sure.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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