What Does Right to Repair Mean for Colorado?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broken, you should be able to fix it or take it to someone you trust to fix it.

 | 
Allison Conwell
Advocate

Author: Allison Conwell

Advocate

Started on staff: 2017
A.B., Princeton University

Allison builds political support around issues impacting all Coloradans. Allison has authored two reports on electronic waste and repair, which have earned coverage from outlets across the country. Allison lives in Denver, where she enjoys taking long walks and reading.

For generations, when your electronics broke, you could take the toolbox out of the garage, open it up, look at the manual, and figure out how to fix it on your own. If you couldn’t figure it out, you could call your friend, neighbor, the repair shop down the street, or the company that made the device for help. 

Now, we’re moving toward a world where you can’t do that anymore. 

Our stuff is made to be difficult to fix. For example, batteries are often glued into our phones. And if the battery wears down, you need special equipment to remove it. Even if you can get that special equipment, you can’t often buy a new battery straight from the manufacturer. 

For many devices, including tractors, ventilators and electric wheelchairs, even If you manage to find a part and fix your device yourself, there might be a digital lock on the device that prevents you from using it until you take it back to the manufacturer or wait for their own technician, who may be hundreds of miles away, to come to you. This means that manufacturers are locking down the market on fixing our stuff. In an era where we are constantly trying to figure out new ways to do things, we do not need to find a new system to fix our stuff. The system that we had has worked for generations. And, the new way of only allowing the manufacturer to fix your things is harmful for lots of reasons.

Replacing Instead of Repairing Hurts the Planet

It’s no secret that we have a waste problem. From takeout containers to bottles tossed on roadsides, we can see some forms of pollution clear as day. 

But other forms of pollution are more difficult to see. Electronic waste, what happens when we toss old computers, TVs, and other electronic devices, is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. And Colorado households generate 196,000 tons of electronic waste per year. 

R2R 2 dokumol from Pixabay.jpg

Electronic waste - Image by dokumol from Pixabay

 

Every device that can be fixed is one less device in a landfill. 

These devices take a lot of resources to make. An engineer found that it takes 295 pounds of raw material and water to make a single 4.5-ounce iPhone 6. 

Phone carriers have a  “New Every Two” motto. It’s used to convince us we need the latest phone every two years. This has resulted in Americans buying 161 million new smartphones each year, and likely tossing our old phones and the 23.7 tons of hidden pollution that comes with them. 

R2R 3.jpg

161 million new smartphones each year - credit U.S.PIRG "The Fix Is In"

Not Having Choices for Repair Hurts Consumers

It costs consumers a lot of money and time to keep having to go to the manufacturer to fix their stuff. 
 
For example, I broke the screen on my iPad last year. I went to the Apple website to check how much it would be to fix it. And for that one screen repair, it would have cost $300 and 5-7 business days. I was able to find a third-party replacement screen and tool kit on Amazon for $20, but the problem is that tools and parts are becoming less and less available to consumers and independent repairers, although they are provided to authorized repairers.

 

R2R 4 Asif Ikbal Bhuiya from Pixabay.jpg

Cell phone with a broken screen - Image by Asif Ikbal Bhuiya from Pixabay

I’m not the only one who has had an experience like this. I surveyed independent repairers across the state and found that replacing a charging port on an iPhone would cost $10, but the Apple store would charge between $29 (if you have AppleCare+) and $329 for the same repair, depending on the model.

 
It doesn’t make any sense to have over a 1000% markup on a repair, especially when families are strapped for money during the pandemic. 
 
In fact, Coloradans can save big by repairing their stuff instead of replacing it. We found the average American household can save $330 per year repairing electronics, and Coloradan households can save about $738 million per year
 

R2R 5.jpg

$738 million - credit CoPIRG "Repair Saves Families Big"

 
 

Farmers are (Literally) Stuck without Right to Repair

Companies don’t just stop us from fixing and repairing our personal electronic devices like phones and tablets. The agricultural sector has been dealing with this problem, too. 

Farm equipment, like tractors and combines, is critical for planting and maintaining fields and harvesting crops. However, sometimes farm equipment breaks down. Some fixes like replacing the brakes or spark plugs should be easy. For years, farmers have been able to fix these components themselves.

R2R 6.jpg

Tractor - "credit": "Dan Davison via Flickr, CC BY 2.0"

 

Unfortunately, companies in the agricultural sector employ the same strategies to make independent repair difficult that personal electronic companies use. 

Equipment is less likely to be made “field-serviceable.” This means many of the tools needed to repair modern agricultural machines require software fixes. As the representative from Abilene Machine put it, too many tools necessary for repairing agricultural equipment “can be found in a data center and not a barn.” 

Companies like John Deere have digital locks that can only be bypassed by a repairer from the company. That means that if a farmer independently changes the brakes on their tractor, the computer software will not recognize those brakes until a technician from the manufacturer calibrates the software in the tractor to recognize the new brakes. 

Ultimately, John Deere has determined that despite paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for their equipment, farmers do not actually own it. According to the company, farmers only receive an “implied license” to operate the vehicle. 

Because farmers only have an “implied license” and not full ownership over their equipment, they cannot legally repair their equipment without manufacturer involvement.

This is truly a nightmare for farmers. 

If they had the right to repair their equipment, like they had for decades, farmers would have more freedom and ability to maintain their equipment and harvest their crops in time to meet their supply chain agreements and feed our community. 

Farmers across the country are fighting for their right to repair, with support from the National Farmers’ Union and Farm Bureau.

People Should Be Able to Fix Things Where They Live

If you can’t fix your stuff on your own, can you take it to someone in your town to fix it? 

The answer to that question used to be an easy “Yes,” but as the companies that make our stuff restrict who can fix it, you will hear “No” more and more often. 

Let’s look at iPhone screens. If the screen on an iPhone 6 broke, where could I go to fix it in Colorado? 

Looking at Apple’s list of authorized repairers in Colorado means that I have it pretty easy in Denver, but most people who aren’t on the Front Range would have to drive hours to get something as simple as the screen on their phone fixed. 

R2R 7 Apple Authorized Repairers to Repair a Broken Screen on an iPhone 6s with AT&T. staff.jpg

Apple Authorized Repairers to Repair a Broken Screen on an iPhone 6s with AT&T, Date accessed: Jan 2 2020

 

Restricting Repair Strangles Small Businesses

 
You used to be able to go to the local repair shop to have your electronics fixed, but as big companies restrict who can fix electronics, those local repair shops are pushed out of business. 
 
A CoPIRG survey of independent repair shops across Colorado revealed that the majority of them find it more and more difficult to find and buy parts and tools to fix consumer electronics. Keeping our money local helps our communities and is especially important during a pandemic, where both small businesses and consumers have tighter budgets.
 

Right to Repair Could Save Healthcare Facilities Time and Money

 
Often, the repairs that medical devices need to undergo are simple and can be done by a trained repair technician, or biomed, who works in the hospital. Fixing medical equipment in-house could save hospitals hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. 
 
According to an estimate based on the testimony of Paul C. Monahan, Jr., Director of Clinical Engineering at ISS Solutions, a repair by the manufacturer costs between 10-15% of the cost of the machine. An in-house repair would cost about 3% of the cost of the machine. For example, if a hospital needed to repair a $150,000 MRI machine, a repair by the manufacturer would cost over $15,000 to repair, but an in-house repair would cost under $5,000. 

 

R2R 8.jpg

Ventilator - "credit": "Apple's Eyes Studio via Shutterstock"

 

In addition to saving money, healthcare facilities would save time, and potentially lives, if they were allowed to repair their equipment. 
 
At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, ventilators were critically important to keeping people alive. Governor Polis estimated that Colorado would be short 7,000 ventilators. In response to the shortage, ventilators from the national stockpile were shipped to Colorado. I spoke to a biomed who works at a hospital that received five ventilators from the national stockpile and discovered that two of them needed preventative maintenance measures run on them to make sure they worked properly. When she reached out to the manufacturer, they wouldn’t provide her the repair manual or diagnostic codes so she could run the preventative maintenance measures herself. 
 
In response to this situation, our national federation called on ventilator manufacturers to provide repair information to hospitals. We were joined by over 43,000 Americans and five state treasurers, including Colorado Treasurer Dave Young
 
We were successful in getting companies that make ventilators like GE, Fisher & Paykal, and Zoll to allow hospitals to have access to repair information.
 
In addition, Senator Wyden from Oregon has introduced a medical right to repair bill for the duration of the pandemic, but our hospitals faced problems fixing their equipment before the pandemic, and they will still face problems fixing their stuff after the pandemic. 

 

People Stuck at Home WIthout Right to Repair

Not all medical equipment is stationed in a hospital. Some medical equipment travels with people as they go to work, school, and around town. One example is a motorized wheelchair. 

Some of the companies that make power chairs make it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the people who own and use the chairs to fix things as simple as buttons on the controller. This leaves people without fully functioning power chairs as they wait for the manufacturer to get to them. 

 

We Need to Fix Our Relationship with Our Stuff

Consumers, small businesses, farmers, biomeds, and the disability community are coming together in states across the country to pass Right to Repair laws, which would require manufacturers to make parts, tools, and diagnostics available to consumers and independent repairers at the same rate that they are made available to their dealers. 

Our relationship with our stuff is broken. It’s often easier to replace our electronics than it is to repair them, and that has hurt our planet, our pocketbooks, and many different industries. It’s time we fix it.

It’s time for us to get back our right to repair.

Allison Conwell
Advocate

Author: Allison Conwell

Advocate

Started on staff: 2017
A.B., Princeton University

Allison builds political support around issues impacting all Coloradans. Allison has authored two reports on electronic waste and repair, which have earned coverage from outlets across the country. Allison lives in Denver, where she enjoys taking long walks and reading.