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Phone companies will have to offer customers backup power when they kill copper lines

Jaromir Urbanek / Shutterstock

The Federal Communications Commission is trying to ease the transition from old copper phone lines to modern alternatives like wireless and fiber. While those new services sound like they should be high-tech improvements, they do come with some limitations: most notably, they don't provide their own power like copper does, meaning that you can't make a phone call over them when the power is out.

In a vote today, the FCC approved rules that will require phone providers to inform new and existing customers about the issues that come along with switching away from copper. Phone providers will also have to inform customers at least three months in advance of when they plan to retire a copper network.

Backup power is critical for emergencies

For consumers switching from copper, there's one particularly important new rule here: phone providers will be required to offer backup power. At first they'll have to offer at least eight hours of backup power; within three years, they'll have to offer a full day's worth of power. Unfortunately, consumers will have to pay for the battery backups if they want them — so it's likely that many, if not most, people will still have to deal with the fact that modern networks don't provide their own power. But the proposal at least guarantees that consumers who know they're in a position where a backup might be necessary will have access to one. The FCC views it as a particularly important option so that people will be able to make calls to 911.

The new rules come alongside a proposal, announced last month, that will eventually make it clear when phone providers can and cannot remove copper lines. Their ability to do so has been in a tricky spot: FCC rules bar them from discontinuing, reducing, or impairing existing service, but getting rid of copper kind of inherently does that — not always having power, for instance, is a huge limitation, especially in emergencies. By voting rules through today requiring phone providers to offer backup batteries, the commission is essentially laying the groundwork for clearer rules. It's okay to get rid of copper; phone providers will just need to make sure the basics are covered first.