FCC Ready for IP transition Trials, where does the 18 year old telecom act fit in?

Leading up to the 18th birthday of the Telecom Act, one impetus for a re-write is clearly the IP transition. Many of the regulations hamstringing telcos regulated under Title II actually come from the 1930s monopoly era.  These regulations hardly have any place in our modern, dynamically competitive environment, as the voice-centric infrastructure those rules were designed to regulate is quickly obsolescingand as consumers flee the old technologies in droves.   Observingthis undeniable free market movement toward all-IP, AT&T in November 2012 requested that the FCC take leadership in conducting trials for the transition. In May of 2013 the FCC’s Technology Transitions Policy Task Force asked for comments regarding a series of different trials to test the effects of transitioning from older technologies to the advanced high-speed broadband networks of the future. The trials would pay close attention to how the transitions affect carriers and their consumers alike.  

The geographically limited trials as AT&T proposed are essential to identify the real-world challenges of the IP transition. The transition trials would serve the same purpose as the digital television trials did in Wilmington, NC, which were tremendously successful in gatheringtheimportant data that allowed the FCC to create appropriate policy recommendations. The FCC has a successful history of using pilot programs and trials to test new technology.  The all-IP transition should be no different.

Although AT&T's request for trials has strong backing from groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Innovation Alliance, some groups express trepidation about the move to all IP.  These groups say that IP technology is still too new and untested, while others prefer applying the old regulations currently on the books to these new technologies.  However, those concerns only bolster the argument that trials are necessary to put an end to speculation and allow the FCC to address any issues that arise, while simultaneously determining the proper consumer protection framework for broadband networks.

One of the greataspects ofthe transition to all IP networks is that most consumers have transitioned to IP infrastructure without even knowing it.  That's a free market decision.  The transition is so seamless that many consumers don't know whether theirnetwork infrastructure is made from copper, cable, or fiber; consumers just want access to the most advanced and convenient Internet-based services and they are demonstrating their readiness to move in to the future with their subscription decisions.  Subscriptions to wireless and VoIP services are climbing;in 2012 wireless services added 8 million new subscriptions to reach a total of 305 million, while VoIP added another 5 million subscriptions to reach 42 million subscribers.  Meanwhile, there are only 138 million traditional landlines, about one in four households, and that number is continuing to decline.

In response to the FCC’s request for comments on the trials, the Internet Innovation Alliance stated that the “limited geographic tests advanced by AT&T provide a framework for the FCC to help transition America’s communications infrastructure to all IP-based networks.  This approach represents good public policy, promotes sound economics and is an appropriate first step toward more robust and ubiquitous broadband across America.” 

Some advocate for extending legacy regulatory requirements to the IP transition trials, but those requirements are not in line with the current IP networks regulatory regime.  If the FCC wants accurate data from carriers and consumers on the impact of transition, the trials should be held in such a way that allows the carriers to innovate and bring consumers the best technological advances, without beingsaddled with outdated regulationsthat should not apply in an all-IP world.  Properly conducted and properly monitored trials will allow the FCC to respond to any issues with an appropriate consumer protection-oriented light touch based on evidence, not speculation.

The transition to IP is here.  The good news is that on Thursday  January 30th, the FCC acknowledged the market transition already in progress and authorized voluntary transition experiments:

"Driven by developments in the marketplace, technology transitions in communications networks are already well underway. They include, for example, the transition from plain old telephone service delivered over copper lines to feature-rich voice service using Internet Protocols, delivered over coaxial cable, fiber, or wireless networks.  The FCC’s experiments will focus on how the enduring values underlying operation of today’s networks can be preserved and enhanced throughout technological change. These values are fundamental:

  • Public safety communications must be available no matter the technology.
  • All Americans must have access to affordable communications services.
  • Competition in the marketplace provides choice for consumers and businesses.
  • Consumer protection is paramount.

These trials should happen in the least burdensome regulatory environment, not under Title II common carrier constructs from the past.  Nationwide all-IP networks are the future, and these trials will serve a valuable purpose in bettering consumers’ lives and moving our great country forward to help us restore our economic prosperity and maintain our global competitiveness.  With so much at stake, we can't let outdated laws stand in the way of progress.  Its time for a Telecom Act update. #18yrsAgo.