Right-to-Repair Again

by Colin Berkshire

In the 1960s and early 1970s it was illegal to purchase a telephone and connect it to the phone network.

Ever since the beginning of the Bell System the policy decision had been to never sell equipment, only rent it. This facilitated the Bell System’s manufacturing division Western Electric to constantly be handling and billing for refurbishing phones. Since Western Electric was fully deregulated and it held the Bell System captive as the exclusive supplier, this meant that the cost to refurbish a phone was no great deal.

By the early 1970s people started to question this anti-competitive practice. Why couldn’t people buy phones? And, why couldn’t they do the phone wiring in their homes?

The Bell System swiftly responded with lobbying portraying the dangers of homeowner wiring. The story went that should an ignorant and inept homeowner wire their phone line up to 120 volts, this voltage could come back down the phone line and KILL innocent linemen. It could set fires to the neighbor’s homes. It could ground and burn out tens of millions of dollars of Central Office equipment.

There were a few problems with this story: First was that the Bell System was already running 150 volts (DC) down some of the phone lines to power T1, repeater, and other pole mounted equipment. Second was that there were no cases of anybody ever being harmed or electrocuted from customer wiring.

The regulators were ignorant bureaucrats, and they just accepted as truth these stories of harm from consumer wiring. In a few cases the Bell System built kits with some wire, a phone block, and a model phone and asked the regulators to try wiring things up for themselves. Of course, they didn’t know their red wire from their black or green or yellow wire. This illustrated that consumers also would have no idea of what to do. Point made.

But the FCC persisted with a mind of its own and eventually developed Part 68 which set technical standards for telephones. And, they passed laws stating that any consumer could plug in a phone using the new “modular” phone jacks. (Consumers were still not allowed to provide the wiring or Jacks.) AT&T participated in the creation of the Part 68 standards because they best understood the possible harms and safety issues. The AT&T proposed standards were robust and expensive to test, which was precisely the idea. The standards and tests were adopted, and for the first time Americans could legally plug in a phone that was purchased from a store.

The FCC smelled AT&Ts proposed standards as fishy, but what were they to do? They were not overly technical people. But they were good bureaucrats. They set a date after which AT&T itself would need to meet the same standards and testing. AT&T howled at this, arguing that there was no need for AT&T to ensure the safety of the AT&T network. When it became clear that the FCC was determined, AT&T then proposed a dramatic relaxing of the technical standards. You see, AT&T’s own equipment could not meet the FCC Part 68 standards. The FCC adopted the new, simpler, more relaxed FCC Part 68 standards that have largely persisted to this date.

Here we Go again

There has been a remarkably similar sequence happening today. California has been proposing a “Right to Repair” telephones equipment. If passed, this would allow independent shops to replace cell phone batteries and broken screens without terminating the manufacturer’s warranty. And, just as AT&T did, Apple is howling at this new legislation. The arguments are the same: Consumers will be put in harms way by replacing batteries. People repairing iPhones will risk electrocution, fire, and even explosions! It would be a safety catastrophe. (Link).

So, in an effort to protect millions of consumers from the hazards of changing a battery in their devices, the California legislature has backed off its radical proposal. Consumers will NOT be allowed to change the batteries in their devices. And, in fact, even experienced technicians will not have the right to replace these hazardous explosive fire prone batteries.

I find it just very surprising how we’re facing exactly the same issue, 45 years later. The difference is that this time industry is winning over the regulators (and consumers).