FCC continues push to replace rural copper with wireless service

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission won’t preempt state regulations regarding changes in network technologies made by telephone companies – commonly referred to as copper retirement – but it will streamline its own procedures to make those transitions easier. Including replacing rural wireline systems with wireless service that has much lower capacity, reliability and consistency than the fiber networks slated for more affluent communities. That’s the gist of a draft order published by the FCC last week.

Earlier this year, the FCC opened two proceedings, aimed at making it easier to deploy wireline and wireless broadband infrastructure. The draft rules came out of the wireline enquiry.

Copper retirement is an umbrella term that covers three different types of technology changes: old style POTS (plain old telephone service) to Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, copper lines to fiber lines, and copper lines to wireless service. The FCC, like AT&T, focuses its argument on the copper to fiber transition, because it’s relatively uncontroversial. A fiber upgrade is generally considered to be a wonderful thing. The POTS to VoIP transition is a bit more troublesome – back up batteries are needed, there’s continuing concern about interoperability with legacy equipment and there are job implications for telco employees – but those are solvable problems.

Replacing copper networks with wireless service, though, is not benign. AT&T is already pushing to yank out copper in rural California, and Frontier is not far behind. The replacement wireless systems might or might not be able to support even the current low level of service delivered by these decaying systems, and will certainly not be capable of matching the fiber systems that more affluent and densely populated urban and suburban communities will get.

The California Public Utilities Commission warned the FCC not to conflate “fiber facilities with next-generation services”, yet that’s exactly what it’s doing. The FCC’s draft refers to “fiber or other next-generation technology” as acceptable replacements for copper wireline networks. The “next-generation technology” in question is fixed and mobile wireless networks that’ll use the latest equipment, but will be configured and provisioned for a much lower level of service.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the new rules next month.