Democratic senators urge FCC’s Pai to be cautious with copper retirement, wireline reforms

A group of senators said changing the current rules will "reduce access to critical communications for consumers" particularly in rural areas.

A group of Democratic senators are urging FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to be careful in how he and his fellow commissioners reform service providers’ copper retirement rules, inciting greater debate between competitive and incumbent carriers.

The plea comes on the eve of the FCC’s monthly meeting this Thursday where the regulator will vote on copper retirement and other wireline issues as part of the regulator’s Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure and Investment report and order.

In a letter (PDF) sent to Pai, 16 senators said that as “we work to enhance networks across the country, we protect existing service for consumers during and after technology transitions.”

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

The senators said that they are concerned that the way the FCC wrote the report and order could potentially harm rural and elderly consumers.

“As currently drafted, the Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure and Investment Report and Order lessens notifications to consumers about changes to their landline service (virtually eliminating advance notice of copper retirement to retail customers), eliminates the 'de facto' retirement rule, and changes the definition of 'service' to reduce access to critical communications for consumers in an attempt to lessen regulatory barriers on phone service providers,” the senators said in the letter. “These changes cause serious concerns for rural Americans, including the elderly, low income, and consumers living with disabilities who rely on landline phone service.”

At its Thursday monthly meeting, the regulator will consider its Report and Order, Declaratory Ruling and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Order to revise and seek comment on further changes to the Commission's pole attachment rules, network change disclosure processes and section 214(a) discontinuance processes. The regulator said these efforts are focused on removing “barriers to infrastructure investment and promote broadband deployment.”

For his own part, Pai has been who has been a staunch supporter of updating the copper retirement rules, is in favor of streamlining the copper retirement process that traditional telcos like AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon have called for. These telcos have advocated that the FCC not only shorten the copper retirement notice from 180 to 90 days, but also simplifying the notification process when they are going to retire a customer’s copper line.

Pai recently told attendees during the recent Reason Media Awards that a friendlier regulatory regime will give service providers more freedom to replace aging copper facilities with fiber.

“By definition, every dollar that a company spends propping up copper is a dollar that can’t be spent building a next-generation network,” Pai said.

Unsurprisingly, USTelecom, which represents large telcos such as AT&T and Verizon, has come out in support of revising the current copper retirement rules proposed by Pai and others.

“Retiring old copper phone networks will allow broadband providers to lay more fiber to meet the 21st century connectivity needs of families and communities across the U.S., so they no longer have to rely on antiquated technologies like fax machines,” said Jonathan Spalter, CEO of USTelecom, in a statement provided to FierceTelecom. “Every dollar spent patching up a copper network is a dollar that can’t be spent on delivering more reliable, faster technologies to more Americans—especially those living in rural parts of our country."

Spalter added that the "FCC’s proposals would streamline regulatory hurdles to upgrading networks and services while making sure consumers have plenty of notice of any changes.”