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Getting rid of copper lines has consequences, and the FCC wants you to know them

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As phone providers continue to retire their traditional copper landline networks in favor of modern services, the Federal Communications Commission is getting involved in an attempt to ensure that consumers are aware of the changes. It's proposing new rules that would require service providers to notify customers of the limitations that come alongside switching over to new networks, like wireless or fiber, specifically the fact that they aren't usable during power outages, unlike copper. That means customers moved over to these new services won't have emergency phone service during storms, which can obviously be a problem.

Service providers would have to sell backup power

To remedy that, the proposal would also require that service providers that move away from copper offer their customers back-up power. The back-up service won't come free, however: if consumers want it, they'll still have to pay for it, and these rules don't seem to dictate the price in any way. At first, providers will have to provide at least eight hours of back-up power; within three years, they'll have to bump that up to an entire day's worth of power.

An additional proposal would require that service providers notify their customers months in advance of making any of these changes. The proposal also maintains that service providers are generally free to make these changes when they want to, so long as it doesn't result in phone service being "discontinued, reduced, or impaired." The commission is also asking the public what it might mean to "reduce" or "impair" a service — it's never formally defined what those actions mean.

It's a tricky issue because these new networks — largely better as they may be — may still create issues for consumers. That includes not providing their own power, but there are also issues of putting legacy systems out of order, like burglary alarms and DSL internet. Formalizing these terms could help clarify how far service providers need to go toward helping consumers transition when switching services. It's not entirely clear if the commission is leaning toward making it a high or a low bar, but the goal generally seems to be offering basic protections while making sure that service providers are clear to make upgrades that would let them roll out broadband in place of copper. The proposals should be voted on in August.