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Who woulda thunk it?

Back in the dark ages, as the late '80s are now known, before voice over IP, the cable companies were already pondering how to get into the telephone business and vice-versa. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for cable, however, was the inability to line-power a voice service over existing hybrid fiber/coax networks. Without that power, the thinking went, telephone service wouldn't work when commercial power fails, and no reasonable regulator would ever accept that reality.

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Alexander Futro, then with CableLabs, shot holes in that thinking, however, by pointing out the high percentage of U.S. homes using cordless phones that wouldn't work without commercial power, line-power or no. While regulators were worrying about lifeline telephony, a lot of consumers weren't.

Fast-forward to today's market realities, and both regulators and telcos are concerned about how to make sure the battery backups in the homes of consumers connected to fiber-based networks are maintained to ensure voice service when commercial power fails, at least for a reasonable duration.

This time around, however, the market reality is very different. Most of us consider our cell phones to be the lifeline. The percentage of Americans rapidly abandoning wireline phone service is ample proof of that. So maybe regulators need to be thinking more about how we're all going to power the batteries on our cell phones if the power goes out for more than a few hours.

This is just one example of how consumer behavior is often well in front of regulatory action. While regulatory concern over how networks are powered is logical, onerous rules for one set of service providers aren't. Unless the regulators also want to dictate how VoIP providers intend to power their phone systems when commercial power fails, I'm not sure how a set of rules for the traditional wireline operators makes sense.

What would make sense, however, is for the telecom industry to get ahead of this issue and do its part to educate consumers as to what is happening in their homes when advanced networks such as fiber-to-the-home systems are installed. This is not a matter to be left to the technician installing the home network and customer premises equipment; it should be a fundamental part of the marketing and sales plan of any FTTH buildout. FTTH providers could even partner with local retailers or a national chain such as RadioShack to make battery replacements easier.

As contributing writer Dawn Bushaus notes in her feature on page 42, so far the telecom industry's strategy seems to be staying quiet on the issue, either to buy time to find a solution or just to keep it out of the headlines.

Unfortunately, that could well lead to the kind of headlines telcos can ill afford.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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