Comcast’s Very Scary PSTN Filing
Comcast’s Very Scary PSTN Filing
Comcast’s Very Scary PSTN Filing

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    I’ve been sorting through the various filings at the FCC in
    the Phone Network to IP transition docket. I single out the 7-page filing by
    as the filing that scares the absolute bejeebers out of me.

    Why? Because everyone else – no matter what their financial
    interest or political alignment – paid lip service to the idea that we ought to
    have at least some kind of
    regulation. Whether it’s a general nod to a “minimal and light touch regulatory
    regime” or a specific shopping list, the vast majority of commenters recognized
    that when you have something as big, complicated and utterly essential to
    people’s lives as the phone system, you need some kind of basic backstop for
    people to feel comfortable and to address problems that will invariably come

    Even AT&T has made it utterly clear that it does not see
    the future of phone service as a regulation-free
    . Even staunch free market conservatives such as TechFreedom and
    Free State
    acknowledge that, as a practical matter, there is going to need
    to be some set of rules – even if
    they hope to keep these rules to what they regard as the barest minimum

    Comcast, and Comcast alone, suggests otherwise. Comcast
    alone thinks we can manage the phone system as the Libertarian Nirvana. This
    smacks either of unbelievable hubris (“we’re so big everyone will have to deal
    with us – what could go wrong?) or an incredible sense of market power (“we’re
    so big everyone will have to deal with us – heh heh heh”). Either way, this
    sends chills down my spine, because both signal loud and clear that Comcast – one
    of the largest providers of residential phone service in the United States, the
    largest residential broadband provider, and the single most powerful entity in
    U.S. telecom policy – simply doesn’t get it when it comes to the future of the
    phone system.

    The thing that everyone else recognizes, and Comcast
    apparently still doesn’t, is that this has to work for everyone, including places Comcast doesn’t serve and doesn’t want
    to serve. It’s sad that Smalltown America doesn’t have broadband, unless they
    can find a convenient McDonalds
    or Starbucks

    Without broadband, these places miss out on our digital
    future. But if their phone connection stops working, they crash and burn now. We depend on the phone for 9-1-1 access, for human contact,
    for essentials of commerce so deeply embedded in our economy that we don’t even
    think about the possibility of it going wrong. And because this is a network,
    what gets screwed up elsewhere will eventually get screwed up for Comcast.

    The expectation in the phone system is that it is
    fundamentally reliable, and that the thousands upon thousands of transactions
    and agreements take place against a background of regulation and
    well-established precedent. Comcast apparently believes you can totally upend
    that system and have it work just fine – at least for Comcast. 

    We Already Have

    Unfortunately, we already have problems. Last week, the FCC
    released a Notice
    of Proposed Rulemaking on Rural Call Completion
    . Odds are good that if you
    are not one of the small percentage of Americans impacted by this issue, you
    have never heard of the “rural call completion problem.”

    To provide the short version – as a result of the IP
    transition, the phone network is starting to unravel at the edges. Calls from
    urban areas to rural areas are increasingly not going through. Somewhere in the
    routing of IP packets and translation of this to the traditional TDM-telephone
    , enough latency and packet loss slips in so that calls stop

    The FCC thought it knew the cause of the problem, something
    called ‘least cost routing,’ and addressed it
    in 2012
    . But it turned out that didn’t solve the problem and the FCC discovered
    it had no friggin’ idea why the phone
    system was starting to unravel at the edges, or how to stop it.

    The FCC responded, rather sensibly and unanimously, by
    proposing reporting requirements that would allow the FCC to trace how calls
    get routed and figure out the problem. The FCC also made it clear that it would
    order providers to make sure calls go through to rural areas, and that the most
    onerous reporting requirements would phase out as phone service to rural areas
    became more reliable again. This proposal got a 5-0 vote, with even the
    Republican Commissioners noting that making sure that calls go through
    everywhere in the country is absolutely at the core of the FCC’s responsibility.

    In the world that Comcast envisions, however, the FCC would
    do absolutely nothing – because it would not have any authority to deal with
    the rural call completion problem. Not because Comcast is necessarily causing
    the problem, or because Comcast hates rural people. Heck, all things being
    equal, I’m sure Comcast would love to see rural folks get all their calls. But
    it’s not Comcast’s problem, so Comcast  doesn’t really care (certainly not enough to
    incur any additional expense or acknowledge any FCC authority). Comcast’s
    footprint is entirely urban/suburban. Sure, some small percentage of Comcast
    customers get frustrated when they can’t call a bed & breakfast in a small
    town in Vermont or can’t call home to Smalltown, TX (population 150) on
    Mother’s Day. But that is such a tiny portion of their overall call volume that
    Comcast doesn’t even notice.

    By contrast, actually keeping records on call routing is a
    very big deal to Comcast. It’s not really the money and inconvenience (although
    obviously Comcast would rather not spend the money or be bothered so it can
    complete 5-10 calls to Smalltown a month). Comcast’s big worry is that this
    means regulating voice-over-IP, which uses Internet protocols, and therefore
    such a regulation is perilously close to – gasp! – regulating the internet! Imagine
    if we blew away the magic IP pixie dust that repels regulators and made IP just
    one more technology for moving voice around? From Comcast’s perspective, that
    cannot be good. Ever.

    So as between making sure folks in rural America get
    reliable phone service versus acknowledging the FCC needs to retain some
    authority over the IP-phone network, the rational Comcast reaction is: “Sorry
    rural America, we regard you as acceptable collateral damage to keep us
    regulation free.”

    Nor does this end at rural America. The problem is (assuming
    we don’t care about rural America), this is a network. The problems are going
    to continue to proliferate. By the time even Comcast is willing to admit that
    something might go wrong, we will have the telecom equivalent of the subprime
    loan meltdown. Frankly, I’d rather avoid that – but I understand why Comcast
    thinks it’s worth the risk.

    Why Do We Care What
    Comcast Thinks?

    So if Comcast is the lone, whacky outsider, why do we care
    what Comcast thinks, especially at this early stage?

    Let me start with why I personally find this so scary. My
    nightmare scenario is Comcast decides it won’t interconnect with someone unless
    it gets paid what it thinks access to its 10 million voice subscribers is worth
    – because that’s how things are done in the cable world. But this isn’t the
    cable world, where Comcast holding up Viacom over carriage rights can mean I
    miss The Daily Show for a while.

    If Comcast holds up Frontier or AT&T Wireless, it means
    millions of people can’t call home, can’t call their businesses, and
    potentially can’t call 9-1-1. That’s not an inconvenience, that is a disaster.

    Comcast needs to acknowledge that we need some kind of
    oversight so that phone calls to rural America go through, consumers can still
    count on their phone calls staying private, and the network bloody well works reliably and consistently.

    Because whether it’s merely hubris or an actual intent to
    exploit its market power, the sad truth is that Comcast is the one company big
    enough to totally crash the U.S. communication networks through unilateral
    action of its own. Comcast is not simply too big to fail, it’s in a special
    regulatory category all its own called “too big to be allowed to screw up.”

    The fact that Comcast can blithely start a proceeding of
    this magnitude and importance by essentially saying “we’re so big we’ll always
    be better off with no rules” is probably the best argument for making sure the
    FCC has the authority to deal with the inevitable disaster this kind of
    arrogance causes.