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, Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, that make customers pay for the batteries.
As part of a test that could have Verizon doing the same, the company has stopped providing free batteries to new FiOS customers in two states. Verizon would not identify those states.
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.
AT&T and RCN told us they have no plans to stop providing batteries at no extra cost during installation. RCN also provides no-cost replacements when the batteries go bad.
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, who is a member of Verizon's consumer advisory board, said he is equally concerned about that company's decision to stop providing the batteries in some areas. "I was not aware of the policy. I’m certainly not happy about it," he said.
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.