THE BLOG
12/10/2013 09:31 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

What If You Had to Dial 911 -- and Couldn't?

It's every parent's worst nightmare: Your child is badly hurt, no one else is around, and you need help -- now. So you pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1 to call an ambulance.

What if you got a recording saying, "We're sorry, that service is not available"?

Shockingly, that might start happening to some telephone users. Our telephone networks are changing, and it's up to the Federal Communications Commission to decide whether the basic standards we've been used to since the 1930s will continue to apply.

Slowly but surely, telephone carriers are upgrading their systems, ditching the old copper-wire networks in favor of newer, digital technology. That is in many ways a good thing, with lots of potential benefits. But, as my colleagues at The Greenlining Institute discovered when researching their latest report, it could also cause severe harm to everyone who uses a phone.

Without going too heavily into the technical details, the FCC will soon need to decide whether a phone call is sometimes not a phone call. Bizarre as that sounds, that's what some phone companies are arguing. They say that if a phone call uses digital technology, it's not actually a phone call, it's an "information service." That means the standards that cover phone service wouldn't apply, and your call would instead be governed by the far looser rules that apply when you use Google, YouTube, Yahoo or other Internet-based information services.

But if you're making a call -- to your spouse, your boss, your child's school or 9-1-1 -- it makes no difference what technology is carrying the signal from your phone to theirs. To you and me, a call is a call, period.

The Telecommunications Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, recognized that phones aren't a luxury; they're a necessity of modern life. It empowered the FCC to make sure our telephone network provides "adequate facilities at reasonable cost" by enforcing certain basic standards. Among other things, those standards now guarantee that telephone service must be available to everyone, include access to emergency services, and have service quality good enough that you can actually have a conversation with the person on the other end of the line.

These standards guarantee that you can have a phone even if you live in a rural area where phone companies may think there are too few customers to bother with. They assure that even people with low incomes can have access to basic phone service at affordable prices. And they ensure that if you need an ambulance or police or the fire department, you can call 9-1-1 and actually reach someone.

As the parent of a child who is about to turn two years old, that last one matters a lot to me.

But if the FCC decides that digital phone networks are merely "information services," all of those protections for consumers are at risk. Some phone carriers may continue to offer these important services, but there is no way to be sure.

No doubt the affluent would still have ways to pay for whatever phone services they need, but what about the less well-off? Lower-income consumers could lose access to affordable phone service. Communities of color -- who are less likely to have home broadband access and are more likely to have just one sort of phone service that they depend on for access to information, job offerings, community or school events, and emergency services -- could face some of the worst consequences. Everything from help in an emergency to pathways to economic opportunity will be affected.

So what will the FCC do? We don't know. Thus far, the commission has declined to take an explicit position. But new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a recent speech at Ohio State University, said, "The evolution of network technology changes neither the responsibility of networks to the greater society, nor the FCC's mission to protect the public interest."

That's encouraging, but also pretty general. The FCC is due to take up the issue at its December 12 meeting, but it likely will take some time before making any solid decisions. What it chooses to do will affect all of us.