Published September 03, 2013
| Consumer Reports
Among the most important telephone calls you’ll probably ever make are to emergency 911. So you’d think the telecommunications industry and government regulators would be taking steps to make sure 911 access over landline phone service is as good or even better than ever, especially in a post 9/11 world. But the opposite seems to be happening.
Unlike old-fashioned copper-wire phone service, newer fiber and VoIP landline telephone systems don’t function during a power failure without a battery backup, which most companies have been providing customers at no extra charge.
But earlier this year, Comcast announced that it will no longer provide a battery backup or replacements for new residential customers unless they pay a onetime $40 fee. (Those who have Comcast's Unlimited Select service, fewer than one percent of the company's customers, can't install a battery backup at all.) The policy borrows a page from some other carriers, including Cablevision and Charter Communications, which, unlike Verizon, AT&T, and RCN, make customers pay for the batteries.
So instead of getting phone service that continues to operate during a power failure, when you may have the most need to make an emergency call, you get a company contract that has you agree to not hold the provider liable if you can’t reach 911.
Comcast’s new policy drew criticism from Edgar Dworsky, the former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who operates the consumer resource website Consumer World. “Cable companies have found yet another way to stick it to customers, but this time it could have serious safety implications," he said in response to Comcast’s decision.
Dworsky isn’t the only one complaining. We've seen Comcast customers expressing similar concerns on message boards.
Dworsky is also critical of the Federal Communications Commission. In April, he asked the agency whether it had any rule requiring telecommunications companies to provide backup batteries and, if not, whether it was prepared to adopt such a requirement. The agency responded that while there was no such rule, “we encourage consumers to take this into consideration when choosing a service provider.” People living in many parts of the country have a choice of only one or two landline service providers.
And if what Charter Communications told us last year is typical, fewer than one percent of residential telephone customers will opt for the extra expense of the battery backup.
Get more tips and information in “Surprise! Your High-Tech Home Phone System Could Go Dead in an Emergency.” And learn how to prepare for a natural disaster.
Dworsky says he finds it ironic that the FCC requires telephone companies to connect customers to emergency service when they dial 911 but not that the phones actually work.
“What’s the point of having a 911 system if you’re not able to call it?” he said. “If the FCC wants people to have access to 911 service and companies want to nickel and dime customers, the FCC definitely should consider requiring that these companies provide and maintain backup batteries.
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