Commission Chair Tom Wheeler’s blog post announcing his intent to have the FCC issue
an Order on the process to transition the phone system in January kicks things
into high gear.
previously that Wheeler started out strong, with good opening remarks and a
staff prepared to start working immediately on the major issues. But even I was
surprised at his
recent blog post, announcing his intent to get an Order out on the
transition of the phone system by January.
We Pause To Recap Our
Story So Far.
For those just joining us, the “Future of the Phone System,”
refers to the massive and wide ranging project of phasing out traditional phone
technology for Internet protocol (IP) based systems and wireless systems. This
sometimes gets called the “PSTN Transition” (PSTN stands for “public switched
telephone network,” a fancy way of saying things with phone numbers that use
the phone system) or the “IP Transition” (because we are moving the phone
system to IP).
This transition has
been going on quietly in the background for years. About a year ago,
it up a notch by asking the FCC to “begin a dialog” on how to phase out the
old phone technology and to rethink what rules we ought to have for the phone
network going forward. AT&T also suggested doing two “technical trials,” by
which it meant ‘please let us start playing with this without any regulatory
oversight – it’ll be awesome cool!’ This promptly caused a major freak out in
telecom land, with folks on one side accusing AT&T of trying to get out of
its regulatory responsibilities, rip off consumers, crush competition, etc.,
and others saying that wholesale elimination of all those pesky legacy rules
was just the thing to unleash the engines of innovation, encourage investment,
bring us to the dawn of a new golden age, etc.
The FCC responded to this collective freak out in telecom
land in its usual fashion, it formed a task force and took a couple of
rounds of public comment. Then Chairman
Genachowski left, putting things pretty much on hold until Wheeler could get
confirmed. So for the last six months, setting aside the occasional
Congressional hearing and this summer’s “Adventures In Voice Link – Sponsored
By Verizon,” everyone in the telecom world dealing with this issue has been arguing
the same points back and forth and wondering when the heck something would
Where is PK In All
We’ve taken the position that (a) it’s a good thing to
upgrade our phone system; (b) we need to make sure that the same social
values that made our phone network totally awesome for everyone for the last
100 years guide this transition and form the foundation for whatever new rules
and policies we adopt; and, (c) This needs to be an upgrade for everyone, not
an upgrade for some and a downgrade for others.
In addition, we need to make sure things do not get screwed
up in the transition. As I explained in my testimony last month, there are a
lot of little things already going wrong (a problem I refer to as “network
neuropathy”). Instead of looking at state and federal oversight of the
transition as a negative, people need to recognize that state and federal
oversight are what prevent potential disasters like Fire Island from going
O.K., We’re Caught
Up. Now What?
Wheeler says he wants some kind of Order for the January
2014 FCC meeting (as yet unscheduled). An “Order” could mean any of the
following: a policy statement giving the FCC’s general approach; a solicitation
for specific technical trials; a Notice of Inquiry teeing up a bunch of
questions; a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; or an actual Report and Order on
any of the longstanding pending proceedings that bear on the Transition, such
as the “copper loop retirement” proceeding” pending since 2007.
That’s an awful lot of range. So lets try to narrow it down
based on what we know.
Smart Politics In The
Blog Post: Wheeler salutes each of the Commissioners that predate him and
praises something each one has highlighted before. First, Wheeler explicitly
acknowledges Commissioner Ajit Pai’s repeated
urging to move forward quickly, particularly with authorizing AT&T’s
proposed technical trials. At the same time, Wheeler also embraces Commissioner
Clyburn’s caution that the FCC needs to move carefully, analyze all the
facts, and make sure that vital services to consumers and public safety are not
compromised during the transition.
Most importantly, Wheeler explicitly embraces
Commissioner Rosenworcel’s 4 Key Values for the IP Transition: “[a]s we develop a new policy
framework for IP networks, we must keep in mind the four enduring values that
have always informed communications law — public safety, universal access,
competition, and consumer protection.” Although we at PK have embraces a “Five Fundamental Values”
we see substantial overlap between our framework and that of Commissioner
Rosenworcel’s. Wheeler’s highlighting of these values as critical to his vision
of the “Network Compact” that constitutes the rights of users and the
responsibilities of network operators.
By highlighting the work done before his arrival, Wheeler
makes clear that his decision to move forward rapidly now implies no criticism
of his predecessors. Also, by taking something from each Commissioner, he shows
his desire to move forward in a collegial manner that will – hopefully – have
buy in from a unanimous Commission.
December 12 Preview: First
up, Wheeler plans for the Transition Task Force to give
a status report at the Open Commission Meeting on December 12. That will
provide a great deal of insight into what Wheeler and staff see as the critical
issues. We can expect that anything highlighted in the status report will be
addressed by the Order in January, and that any questions highlighted by staff
as needing answers will be the subject of much lobbying by stakeholders after
Stay tuned tomorrow as we discuss the technical trials and what happens next.