December 05, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver

If you have a landline and want the ability of making a phone call during a power outage, today’s story will be of special interest. As Central California reader “Sylvia” discovered, digital telephone service has made something we depend upon suddenly undependable.

“Recently my 91-year-old mother was experiencing chest pain during a power failure in our neighborhood. We have old-fashioned, plugged-into-the-wall phones, not cordless, and do not require the power being on. I tried to call 911, but there was no dial tone. The phone was completely dead. This was very strange, as, only a week earlier we had new digital phone and Internet service installed,” she explained.

“I ran to a neighbor who had no power, but her phone was working. We both have the same telephone/Internet provider, and she has had service for several years. Neither of us knew why her phone worked and mine did not.”

We sent emails to 30 highly educated people — lawyers, doctors, high school and university teachers — asking, “If you have digital telephone service, what must be in your modem that could save a life in an emergency?”

It’s not GPS, as several people thought. Most had no idea.

The answer? Without a backup battery in your modem, during a power failure, phone calls from a landline are impossible.

Ninety-eight percent of the people who responded to our email had no inkling that a modem can and should have a back-up battery.

That’s exactly what so upset Sylvia when speaking with her provider’s customer service representative.

“I asked them to explain why my neighbor obviously had a back-up battery. Did the installer forget to put it in our modem?

“Their answer floored me! I felt absolutely cheated, and I’ll bet a lot of people feel the same way,” she told You and the Law.

She’s right — but most do not know just how deeply at risk they could be, right now.

Until about a year and a half ago, across the U.S., modems almost always had a backup battery provided at no extra cost. If the battery failed, it would be replaced. In Canada they still are provided free.

If a customer had some issue with their phone service, Internet connectivity or Wi-Fi, and spoke with customer service, the standard instructions were to, “Unplug the modem, remove the battery, wait 10 minutes, replace the battery, power up your modem and that should fix things.” Often it did.

So, why was there no backup battery in Sylvia’s modem?

We spoke with Jenny Gendron, Comcast’s media relations manager for the California Region, and Donald Forbes, director of communications with Bright House Networks.

“After surveying customers, and reviewing industry practices we found that most do not place a high priority on having a backup battery, so we no longer provide one automatically for voice modems, but they can be purchased for $35,” Gendron explained.

“We changed the battery policy approximately one year ago due to a lack of customer demand. As most customers have a cordless phone which will not work in a power outage — unless they have a backup power source for the phone which most don’t, a modem battery is rendered useless during an outage,” Forbes told us.

You and the Law asked to be provided with proof — the research these companies claim to have done to reach conclusions which we seriously question, based on our own small survey and, more importantly, speaking with telecommunications experts.

We also asked, “Now that you are buying modems without batteries, how much are you saving?” Both declined to answer. We learned from one manufacturer that the savings “ballpark” is from $15 to $20 per modem,

To Edgar Dworsky, former Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General in the Consumer Protection Division, and now editor of Consumer World, “Cable companies have found yet another way to stick it to customers, but this time it could have serious safety implications.”

“While the FCC in August has authorized cable companies to charge for backup batteries, I still urge that they are offered free to all customers who request them,” Dworsky stated.

To John Strand, retired AT&T Central California supervisor of network operations, “Remaining in touch is critical, especially to our aging population. Historically, when the lights go out, landline phones still work, as they operate on an independent power system. To increase profit margins —and leaving out these critical batteries — cable companies are putting lives at risk.”

And Sylvia? We placed one phone call and our reader got that battery, at no cost. 

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.