Tech transition threatens rural consumers

The conversion to new digital communications systems creates special challenges for rural communities to stay safe and connected
Tech transition threatens rural consumers

If Congress ever had to vote on whether the U.S. should slash its 9-1-1 emergency system to reduce features, decrease reliability, and make it harder for people to use, the result would be obvious.

“No member of Congress would ever take a public position supporting this change,” said Randy MacDonald with the Comptche Volunteer Fire Department in Mendocino County on California’s northern coast.

MacDonald’s comments were part of a briefing on Capitol Hill last week designed to give congressional staff an overview of how the transition to digital technology like Internet calling and mobile phones is affecting rural consumers.

“The Rural Broadband Policy Group polled National Rural Assembly participants on what they knew about the tech transition, and the answer was not much,” she said. Three-quarters of rural respondents in the informal survey didn’t know what kind of technology their phone used, she said.

Getting consumers educated about the changes is going to take cooperation among law makers, the Federal Communications Commission, and telecommunications companies, she said. “We need all these parties involved if we’re going to carry out the phone transition in a way that doesn’t leave folks behind,” said Coe, who lives in Athens, Tennessee.   
Sharell Harmon with YouthBuild USA said broadband connections are critical for rural youth seeking education and employment.“We believe this would go a long way to help rural communities and rural youth,” Harmon said.

Mimi Pickering, an Appalshop filmmaker and media organizer from Whitesburg, Kentucky, said Kentucky’s recent deregulation of some rural phone lines will cause reliability and service problems for residents. “Rural Kentuckians are worried about what will happen during power outages, which are frequent and often long-lasting occurrences,” she said. “Internet and wireless phones don’t work without electricity, or they operate on batteries which must be charged. Landlines have been our lifeline during these critical situations.”

But consumer protections that applied to the copper-line system, like universal service requirements, won’t necessarily be available with new technologies, she said.

Regina Coster with The Utility Reform Network (TURN) of California said the transition to digital is affecting telephone calls going from metropolitan to rural areas. “Rural call completion” is a well documented issue that the Federal Communications Commission addressed with new rules last year. Congress needs to do more to give the FCC and states the power to regulate calls that travel through digital channels like Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), Coster said.

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