FCC’s copper retirement revision draws mixed reactions from telecom industry

The FCC voted to approve reforms that it says will accelerate the migration copper to fiber networks, one that is inciting a mix of praise and derision from telcos, industry groups and its own ranks.

Under the proposed reforms set by the regulator, the intent is to streamline the copper retirement process.

RELATED: FCC’s Pai: Copper retirement regulatory red tape needs to be cut

The FCC also enacted rules that accelerate the discontinuance of decades-old technologies in favor of services using IP technologies.

These reforms will accomplish two goals. First, it will allow providers to notify customers, including federal agencies, earlier of upcoming network changes and copper retirements. Second, it will reduce consumer confusion and carrier burden caused by duplicative Commission-mandated copper retirement notices.

Carriers cite support

Copper and legacy service retirement reforms are music to the ears of traditional telcos that have long argued that longer copper and legacy retirement rules have hindered their migration to fiber and next-gen services.  

Traditional telcos such as AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon—all of which are migrating more of their customers to fiber—said the copper retirement notice period should be shortened to 90 days.

Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in the regulator’s 2015 Technology Transitions Order, developed a longer 180-day period. As part of that order, the FCC proposed giving competitive carriers and businesses a six-month notice, while residential customers get three months’ notice before copper facilities are shut down.

While Verizon did not release a statement, AT&T and Frontier applauded the FCC’s actions.

Joan Marsh, EVP of regulatory and state external affairs, said in a blog post that the FCC’s new rules will give AT&T greater freedom in expanding its fiber and IP-based networks.

“Today, the FCC takes significant steps toward completing the ongoing transformation of the nation’s communications networks from outdated legacy facilities to next-generation technologies,” Marsh said in a blog post. “The ruling removes or modifies rules that have slowed a provider’s ability to retire aging network technologies and discontinue services that increase a provider’s costs by forcing them to maintain outdated network infrastructure. These actions will enable providers to focus on deploying next-generation fiber-based facilities, upgrading the quality of service offerings made possible by Ethernet and 5G wireless capabilities, and more quickly introducing innovative products and services to consumers.”

Ken Mason, group VP of regulatory affairs for Frontier Communications, which has been also vying for copper retirement reforms, agreed.

“Frontier applauds the FCC’s decision today to streamline its copper retirement process and clarify its discontinuance test—common sense steps to promote investment and unleash fiber deployment,” Mason said. “Chairman Pai and the Commission rightly recognize that fiber and IP investment offer enhanced broadband speeds and improved network reliability. Instead of fearing our connected future, the Commission today welcomes these investments with open arms, taking yet another step to level the regulatory playing field and ensure that America has the best possible broadband infrastructure.”

Regulator dissension

While the passing of the copper retirement and associated IP transition rules are a win for FCC Chairman Pai and his fellow Republican commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, it’s clear the decision drove a wedge within the regulator’s ranks.

Chairman Pai, Commissioners O’Rielly and Carr approved the measures while Commissioner Mignon Clyburn dissented. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel approved in part and dissenting in part.

Pai said in his statement that creating new rules that favor IP and fiber-based technologies are key to closing the digital divide and that “unneeded regulations deter many companies from investing in these new networks.”   

“Having to maintain two networks—one legacy, one modern—diverts resources away from new deployments,” Pai said. “By definition, every dollar that is spent maintaining fading copper networks cannot be spent on fiber.  And the dollars are substantial; one estimate found companies could save $45-50 in operating expenses per home each year by not having to maintain old copper facilities. Nationwide, that translates into billions of dollars annually that could be devoted to next-generation networks.  But that digital opportunity is denied when the FCC’s rules force carriers to maintain the networks of yesteryear.”

However, commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel, while supportive of next-gen services and networks, said any transition should be done carefully.

Clyburn said that by giving telcos easier copper retirement rules, particularly those that have wireless networks, customers may switch to a more expensive wireless alternative service.

“I heard just last week about a customer whose fixed broadband speeds were so frustratingly slow that she spent hundreds of dollars a month on a mobile hotspot just to stay connected,” Clyburn said. “This item will countenance more of that, saddling consumers with increased voice and broadband costs, and allowing providers to effectively retire their copper without notice.”

Rosenworcel said that while service providers should not be discouraged to advance their network services, carriers should still have to engage with customers when they want to make upgrades.

“I know that networks need to be updated,” Rosenworcel said. “I understand the need to swap out old services and replace them with new infrastructure.  But it defies logic to suggest that this can be done without working with the customers and communities where network change occurs.  To those who are affected by change—consumers, businesses, state officials, tribal authorities, and first responders—the FCC says tough, figure it out, you’re really on your own.”