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Public Service Commission staff says basic telephone service shouldn't be abandoned

What will happen in Maryland as the legacy copper landline system is phased out?

As the telecommunications industry prepares to switch phone service away from traditional copper landlines, the staff of the Maryland Public Service Commission is telling lawmakers that it is "premature" to allow carriers to abandon basic telephone service.

The Federal Communications Commission issued an order in August that allows telecommunications companies to switch customers who have copper landlines with service problems to fiber-optic lines without the customer's permission, though they must notify the customer in advance. The FCC also required that battery backups be used for fiber-optic customers in case of power outages.

But in Baltimore and parts of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, no fiber-optic option is available, and none is planned. As the state develops standards, what the transition from the legacy copper system will mean for areas without fiber-optic service still is being decided.

"The FCC ruling does permit states to be more restrictive regarding telecom service quality standards, and the PSC is evaluating the new rules to determine what that means for Maryland," PSC spokeswoman Tori Leonard said.

Major telecommunications providers such as AT&T and Verizon, the dominant carrier in Maryland, have previously stated their desire to eventually discontinue the traditional copper phone network that customers have used for more than a century. Traditional landlines have fallen out of favor with customers who increasingly are using cellphones or fiber-based landlines or voice over internet protocol landlines.

But some groups have raised concerns about the switch, arguing that the copper landlines are the only technology that can keep working in the event of a power outage, that VoIP service can be of poor quality, and that many medical devices or home security systems require a copper landline to work. Fiber-optic cable is generally considered high-quality but needs electricity to work.

In a report to the General Assembly issued Dec. 1, the PSC staff said that because of a lack of competition in rural Maryland, carriers should not be allowed to withdraw basic, affordable phone services. The report did not address whether a VoIP offering would suffice if it were available.

The Communication Workers of America, a union group representing Verizon workers, called upon the PSC in September to investigate its accusation that Verizon is intentionally allowing its copper landline network to deteriorate, leaving customers in areas without fiber with subpar options. The CWA said it supports the switch to fiber-optic but is against abandoning the copper network where no fiber option exists, such as in Baltimore.

"We're not saying stop progress," said Debbie Goldman, the telecommunications policy director for CWA, saying that the union supports the switch to fiber-optic. "But until you do, this is an obligation of this company, and an obligation of the Public Service Commission."

Goldman said that typically when a copper line failed, employees were directed to fix the problem inadequately, so that it would likely fail again in a rain or snowstorm. The frustration with the service was intended to encourage customers to abandon their copper landlines, Goldman said.

Verizon characterized the CWA's accusations as an attempt to force the company to hire more union employees. Verizon's contract with the employees who work on the copper network expired in August and the sides are negotiating.

"As we've seen many times in the past, union leaders have an ill-advised pattern of creating campaigns filled with mischaracterizations and inaccurate statements," Verizon spokesman John Bonomo said in an email. "This is another example of that same, old broken record."

Bonomo said Verizon invested $382 million in its fiber-optic and copper networks in Maryland last year, but could not say how much of that money was spent on the copper network.

The union says Verizon has spent just $200 million over seven years to maintain the copper network across the Northeast, citing a letter the company sent to the Federal Communications Commission in July.

While Verizon has said it wants to abandon the copper landline network eventually, it has no timeline or plans to do so. It also has stated it has no plans to bring its fiber-optic network to Baltimore residents.

The Maryland PSC ordered Verizon last week to respond to the union's accusations by Jan. 14.

cwells@baltsun.com

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