Our telephone system is evolving, and consumer protections must keep pace.

New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler recently gave a speech at Ohio State University laying out his vision for the future of telecommunications. He noted that many carriers are upgrading parts of the national telephone network to newer digital technologies, and made a crucial point:

“The evolution of network technology,” Mr. Wheeler said, “changes neither the responsibility of networks to the greater society, nor the FCC’s mission to protect the public interest.”

He was right. The transition from older to newer technologies has the potential to create a more robust, reliable and efficient phone network, but it also poses significant risks to consumers.

How significant? Imagine if your spouse had a heart attack and you picked up the phone to call 9-1-1 -- and got a recording saying, “This service is unavailable.”

That’s not a fantasy. Today, basic standards protect phone users in many ways, guaranteeing everything from 9-1-1 emergency services to consumers’ very ability to access reliable, affordable phone service. This whole structure is potentially in danger if the FCC doesn’t enforce current standards as the transition to a digital phone network moves forward.

Over a century ago, the telephone quickly went from being a luxury to a necessity. As a result, we established some very basic expectations for phone service in the United States: It must be available to everyone, include access to 9-1-1, and have service quality good enough that you can actually have a conversation with the person on the other end of the line. The FCC is the agency responsible for enforcing these standards, and has done a good job. But that authority is now at risk.

Some phone carriers are arguing that because it uses new technology, a phone call over an all-digital network is not really a phone call. Instead, it should be treated as an “information service” – and not be covered by the basic standards that govern phone service. While this “a phone call is not a phone call” claim seems a bit silly, the FCC has expressly refused to settle the issue and declare that phone service must meet the same basic standards regardless of the technology used.

The Greenlining Institute studied this issue and just released our findings in a report, DISCONNECTED:  What the Phone System’s Digital Transition Will Mean for Consumers. We concluded that if we transition to an all-digital telephone network and the FCC continues to take this “hands-off” approach, we will likely see some very serious harms. Customers may find themselves unable to obtain phone service at affordable prices, or even get service at all.  Customers could lose access to 9-1-1, reverse 9-1-1, and crisis counseling numbers. 

Customers could suffer from reduced service quality and increased dropped calls.

While these harms would impact everyone who uses a phone, they would disproportionately harm communities of color, who rely heavily on telephone service, as well as lower income Americans of all colors and people who live in rural communities. For many consumers of color, telephone service is their only means of access to information, job offerings, community or school events, and emergency services. If the FCC doesn’t enforce current standards for new telephone technologies, we risk widening our country’s already significant digital divide.

Chairman Wheeler and the FCC should clarify that a phone call is a phone call, regardless of the technology that carries the signal, and that the basic standards we are used to will continue to apply. The potential consumer benefits of the telephone transition are enormous. The FCC must ensure that those benefits are protected for all Americans.

Goodman is legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute and co-author of DISCONNECTED:  What the Phone System’s Digital Transition Will Mean for Consumers.