FCC looks at telcos' copper network retirement by neglect, considers forced sales

26 November 2014 by Steve Blum
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Landline telephone companies are backing off from traditional Plain Old Telephone Service in favor of less regulated and more advanced Internet Protocol technologies. When they invest in upgrades, it’s usually fiber and not copper-based. As a result, there’s a move away from copper networks and associated legacy services.

In a notice approved last week and published yesterday, the FCC is looking for comments on how it should regulate that process. One of the questions the commission wants to answer is what do about de facto retirement of copper plant, where telephone companies simply let unprofitable network segments rot on the poles…

There are numerous allegations that in some cases incumbent LECs are failing to maintain their copper networks that have not undergone the Commission’s existing copper retirement procedures…First, to establish whether there is a factual basis for new rules in this area, are incumbent LECs in some circumstances neglecting copper to the point where it is no longer reliably usable? We seek specific examples and facts concerning the consequences to consumers, competition, and public safety.

It’s a particular problem for rural areas in California and elsewhere. The big incumbents – AT&T and Verizon – want to get out of the rural landline business and convert subscribers to higher priced wireless service. Consequently, they’re refusing to upgrade overloaded DSL facilities or, in some cases, offer broadband service at all. That’s not exactly the copper-to-fiber/POTS-to-IP transition that the FCC is addressing right now, but it’s effectively the same thing.

One solution that’s mentioned in passing is requiring telcos to sell off copper networks that they no longer want…

We further intend to determine what role, if any, the Commission should play in any sale or auction of copper, including whether the Commission should establish rules requiring incumbent LECs to make a good faith effort to sell their copper networks before retiring the facilities.

The FCC’s notice doesn’t explicitly tie de facto abandonment to forced sales of systems. But it should. If AT&T or Verizon don’t want to invest in upgrading a rural system, then they shouldn’t be allowed to use their protected monopoly status to hold those subscribers hostage to decaying facilities.