Tuesday, October 15, 2013

New York PSC to Consider Impact of Changing Technology on Phone Consumer Protection

The advent of alternative technological platforms for the provision of phone and other telecom services has generated consumer protection issues now on the agenda at the New York Public Service Commission for its October 17, 2013 meeting.

The Time Warner Petition to Relax Customer Protection Rules for VoIP Cable Phone Service
For years, cable TV providers have provided home phone service, typically over the same coaxial cable used for television and broadband.   With some exception, notably the need for external electric supply, cable phone service (Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) is  relied upon by consumers as the functional equivalent of landline service. Until very recently it has not been regulated.

Indeed, as more conventional phone service migrates to internet technology, there is increased effort to escape all state regulation under the questionable notion that use of alternative technology can take service out of reach of regulation, or that the transition from monopoly to multiple providers made state regulation unnecessary.  As stated by the Colorado Governor several years ago when vetoing a VoIP deregulation bill:
As this progression from landlines to VoIP occurs, Colorado cannot be left without the power to regulate such an important technology. Should the need arise, regardless of movement at the federal level, the PUC must have the latitude and authority to regulate the price, quality of service, and availability of VoIP in order to prevent significant harm to the consumers of this State.
Colorado Governor Vetoes VoIP Deregulation Bill, June 11, 2010.

Earlier this year, Time Warner conceded its VoIP home phone service is fully subject to state utility regulation. Time Warner swiftly petitioned the PSC for waiver of certain consumer protection rules, in PSC Case 13-C-0193.  See Hello? Hello? Hello? Hel...  Time Warner looks to make it easier to shut non-payers' phones off,  By Larry Rulison, Albany Times Union Aug. 27, 2013.

The Public Utility Law Project of New York filed comments in opposition to the waiver petition, opposing the relaxation of customer protections and customer service standards, and supplying information obtained in discovery regarding service terminations.  The Project also filed supplemental comments.

Case 13-C-0193 is on the October 17 PSC Consent Agenda and so the action being taken in the case will not be discussed at the meeting.
Photo illustration by Jeff Boyer / Times Union
See Albany Times Union Editorial: Protect phone customers, October 10, 2013.

The Verizon VoiceLink Case - Substituting Wireless "VoiceLink" for Copper Landline Service
 In Case 13-C-0197 Verizon filed a new tariff with the PSC that would have allowed it permanently  to replace traditional twisted pair copper landline phone service with its VoiceLink wireless service on the western part of Fire Island rather than repair the landlines damaged during Hurricane Sandy related storms.

Where Sandy did the most damage on Fire Island

 In addition, Verizon's tariff as filed would have allowed deployment of wireless phone service in other areas where the utility found it to be a cost effective alternative to repairing landlines.  Similar action was taken by Verizon in New Jersey.
Hurricane Sandy devastated this barrier island community of multimillion-dollar homes, but in Peter Flihan’s view, Verizon Communications has delivered a second blow: the telecommunications giant did not rebuild the landlines destroyed in the storm, and traditional telephone service here has now gone the way of the telegraph.  **** The changing landscape has Verizon, AT&T and other phone companies itching to rid themselves of the cost of maintaining their vast copper-wire networks and instead offer wireless and fiber-optic lines like FiOS and U-verse, even though the new services often fail during a blackout.The vision I have is we are going into the copper plant areas and every place we have FiOS, we are going to kill the copper,” Lowell C. McAdam, Verizon’s chairman and chief executive, said last year.
 On a New Jersey Islet, Twilight of the Landline, NY Times Oct. 14, 2013
 The New York PSC opened an investigation and trimmed back the tariff to limit it to temporary VoiceLink service on Fire Island while the broader issues of eliminating traditional copper landline service are examined.

Responding to the protest against substitution of the less robust VoiceLink service, Verizon announced that it would install a new wireline fiber optic system, withdrew the portion of the tariff that would have allowed permanent substitution of its wireless VoiceLink for wireline service, and argues the matter is moot. Many comments were received, before and after Verizon's change of position, including those of the Attorney General,  Common Cause/New York, Communications Workers of America, Consumers Union of U.S. Inc., Fire Island Association and AARP, represented by Richard Brodsky, former New York State Assembly Corporations Committee Chairman.

The Utility Law Project filed comments seeking clarification of the regulatory regime for the new wireline fiber system regarding universal service, consumer protection, affordability, and service reliability standards.  PULP also recommended that the Commission review how its relaxed service repair standards are working.  Under those standards the Commission-imposed  financial consequences for poor repair service are only imposed when service metrics are failed with respect to "core" customers who predominantly are those who receive low-income Lifeline  assistance.

The case is on the PSC Agenda for October 17, 2013, for discussion and possible action

Gerald A. Norlander

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