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How Washington is getting ready for the fiber-optic future of communications

(Via Flickr user <a href="">St_A_Sh</a> )

In moving us onto ever newer, ever faster networks, America's telecom firms are phasing out their old copper lines and installing high-speed fiber optics. The result? Soon, all our phone calls will be handled by the nation's carriers as data packets.

This technological transition will enable new features, such as high-definition voice, and could grant new capabilities to our first responders. But although it will offer benefits, the change could also create unintended complications for some consumers.

To protect them, federal regulators are proposing a number of new rules on telecom carriers that could be voted on as early as August.

One would require companies to offer an optional battery that could be installed in your home so that if the power ever goes out your phone service will keep working. The old copper system didn't need batteries because copper lines can conduct electricity. But fiber optics can't, meaning a power outage could prevent consumers from making emergency calls. Under FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal, which is being circulated Friday, telecom firms would have to tell their customers about their new systems' power requirements and offer a backup that provides at least eight hours of additional power.

"Empowering consumers with information is a central theme of our new proposed rules," wrote Wheeler in a blog post.

Companies will be expected to notify the Federal Communications Commission if they decide to stop offering consumers some services as part of the transition, such as DSL Internet, which relies on copper wires. But in the interest of making sure the country migrates to fiber more quickly, the agency won't be requiring firms to ask permission to turn on the new fiber-optic networks.

Other protections will be aimed at ensuring that small businesses, schools and hospitals can continue to buy services from telecom companies at competitive wholesale rates. Consumer advocates and some in the telecom industry are welcoming the FCC's move, saying it will spur competition and innovation.