Senators voice concerns over telephone tech switch

Senators are concerned that an ongoing switch from traditional phone lines to Internet-based phone technology could leave some in the U.S. without reliable phone service.

During a Thursday hearing held by the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, multiple Democratic senators expressed concerns that the new technologies would be less reliable than the traditional technologies, especially during emergencies.

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“If there’s one thing that every person is worried about … its public safety,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said.

“We need to make sure that these new technologies are functional,” especially when callers are trying to reach emergency services, she continued.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pointed to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which wiped out communications networks in parts of New York and New Jersey that had moved off of the traditional technology.

The so-called IP  — or Internet Protocol — transition to Internet-based phone technology is being overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, which voted earlier this year to allow telephone companies to propose transition trials for areas where they intend to remove the traditional technology.

Companies — led by AT&T — are trying to convince regulators that Internet-based technology is more reliable, easily maintained and in-demand as customers voluntarily switch to the new networks.

Public interest groups, on the other hand, worry that the IP networks could lack some features that consumers have come to rely on, such as requirements that the companies connect all calls or self-powered phones that consistently work even when the power is out.

 “It is my hope that through these trials all stakeholders can work together to proactively address any issues revealed in the trials, protect consumers and preserve public safety,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications — said in his opening statement Thursday.

“But I also expect Congress to maintain close oversight over this process — a transition of this magnitude deserves nothing less.”

On Wednesday, Pryor, Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) requested a Government Accountability Office study on the technology switch, asking that the agency examine the state of the transition and how it will affect the country’s communications networks, especially during emergencies.

Others push back on the need for government to play a role as phone companies move to the new networks.

“You think that government can absolutely can guarantee that every call goes through?” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked incredulously.

“Don’t you think competition would actually do a far better job than having the heavy hand of government guarantee that, which I don’t think it would do,” he said.

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