Make sure your home phone service can reach 911

By Anthony GiorgianniConsumer 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.

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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.

What to do

  • When switching providers or renewing your service, insist that the company give you at least one backup battery. Keep in mind that the batteries provide only up to eight hours of standby time, less time if you make or take calls.
  • If you must buy a battery, don’t automatically buy it from your telecommunications provider. Get the battery specifications and find out whether it's available from third parties for less.
  • Consider getting more than one battery to rotate into the charging unit to extend the duration of backup power. Otherwise, if you lose power late at night, you may find that your single battery is drained by the time you discover the failure in the morning. Some telephone company equipment accepts more than one battery, including some of Comcast's units.
  • Keep a corded phone, since most cordless models need AC power to operate, even with a battery backup. If you don’t have a corded phone, you can buy one online for less than $10
  • For power failures that are expected to be more than just a few hours, find out whether you can disconnect the battery and reconnect it only when you need to make an emergency call. That will disable incoming calls, but it will extend the amount of time the battery will operate. Some Verizon systems have a button that customers can push to get an additional one hour of standby time after the battery appears to be drained.
  • Find out how to test the battery and how often you should do so. Some carriers monitor backup batteries remotely, and some will replace a worn battery for no charge. So check with your provider.
  • If you’re concerned about maintaining 911 access during a power failure, consider maintaining copper service, if it’s still available from your phone company. Some companies have been asking for regulatory approval to eliminate copper in some areas, and they’re not installing it in new housing developments.
  • If you have a cell phone that works from your home, find a way to recharge it during a power failure, such as with an adapter that can connect to your car’s charging system. Remember, cell phone towers can fail during power failures, too, as many people learned when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in October, including in a large part of New York City.
  • Consider buying a generator that can maintain power to your telecommunications system. If it’s a portable generator, as opposed to a whole-house system, be sure your telecommunications equipment is one of the items you plug into it.

Anthony Giorgianni

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