Derecho and deregulation

As John Schwartz’s excellent article today reports, nearly two million people in 10 states and the District of Columbia are sweltering after the recent derecho.

If those people rely on high-speed Internet access to communicate and services are down, who’s going to do anything about it? Answer: As far as I can tell, no one. Unless the private companies involved feel like fixing things, they have no particular obligation to leap up and spend the money to help. And it’s not as if competition makes them worry that they’ll lose customers if they don’t respond.

Let’s say you rely on cable high-speed Internet access for your data services. You like the bundle and paying a single bill, so you drop your “old-fashioned” phone line (with its own source of power) and decide to rely completely on the Internet. As part of the deregulatory tsunami that swept over both state and federal government in the last ten years, cable data service has been protected from any threat of basic regulation.

In June 2005, the Supreme Court deferred to the FCC’s decision to classify cable modem service as an “information service,” meaning that it’s not overseen or regulated like a utility. That was the end of the FCC’s authority to demand that cable rebuild high-speed Internet access lines taken down by storms. And if you’re using a phone service across your high-speed Internet connection that isn’t plugged into the traditional (and swiftly evaporating) phone service, it doesn’t have to comply with the FCC’s 911 requirements.

Say you live in Northern Virginia. Virginia’s State Corporation Commission does not have regulatory jurisdiction over any Internet access services, VoIP, or cable services. (And if you got scared by the derecho and the coming violent storms associated with global warming, and you’d like to have a new landline phone built to your house, the local Virginia telco can refuse to do it – they’d rather you rely on wireless. But it’s not clear how you’re going to be able to charge your handset, and no one is promising to provide you with backup power.) Virginia has joined a cascade of states deregulating telecommunications.

So as the globe grows warmer and more people rely on Internet access for everything, what happens when that access stops working? We’ll all be relying on the graciousness of a few mammoth companies.

Comcast recommends that in case of a storm you “[h]ave a traditional hard-wired phone on standby.” So noted.

 

Comments

  1. Your assumption that the legacy copper wire telephone service will continue to work after an electrical power failure is dated, at least in my experience. I live in a rural area without cable service, but next to the local telephone company’s switch (it’s CenturyLink, formerly Embarq, Sprint, Centel, Central Tel. of VA, etc.). So I use CenturyLink DSL for Internet access. My experience in recent storms is that these telephone switches have backup battery power to preserve phone service for a few hours in case of power failure, and then cannot operate. In prior lengthy power failures, I’ve witnessed CenturyLink repairmen deliver and attach gas-powered generators to the switches so that they would operate during the power failure. Once the gas in the generator tank ran out, the switch again failed. In the dericho storm, they did not do this and, oddly, our electrical power was restored before the phones came back to life. So after power was restored, I had the weird experience of watching an ad for CenturyLink on TV touting how their phones worked reliably in a power failure so that a customer could call 911, when my experience was just the opposite. Even though I had power, I still couldn’t call 911.