As we wrote back in November, AT&T’s decision to
upgrade its network from tradition phone technology (called “TDM”) to an all
Internet protocol (IP) system has enormous implications for every aspect of our
voice communication system in the country. To provide the right framework for
the transition, Public Knowledge submitted to the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) our proposed “Five Fundamentals” Framework: Service to All
Americans, Interconnection and Competition, Consumer Protection, Network
Reliability, and Public Safety.
To recap briefly, AT&T filed a Petition arguing that
transitioning from its existing TDM-over-copper to a voice over IP (VOIP)
service would move it from being a “telecommunications carrier” to an
“information service” provider, and asked the FCC for a glide path for the
But when everyone is
IP and no one is a “traditional phone service,” what happens?
While we agree with AT&T that the time has definitely
come to rethink the rules for 21st Century phone network, we
disagree with AT&T’s argument that a technology upgrade radically changes
everything. Technology changes, but the social needs and goals remain the same.
Service to all Americans. We must not become the first
industrialized nation to walk back from the commitment to 100% accessibility.
For century, we have believed that everyone in the United States is entitled to
a basic level of communication service. If you live in a rural “high cost”
area, you can get phone service. If you have a physical disability, we provide
a service that accommodates that. If you are poor, we offer a “lifeline”
subsidy. As we move forward in the all-IP world, we must make sure that all
Americans, regardless of race, sex, income level or geographic location,
participate in and benefit from any upgrades to our telecommunications
Interconnection and competition. ”Interconnection” is the
requirement that any phone provider must attach to a rival network, send calls
from its network to the rival network, and accept calls from the rival network
for its subscribers. Without this rule, network providers such as AT&T
could squeeze out smaller competitors by refusing to interconnect, so that phone
calls from the smaller networks don’t go through. Unless we want to return to
the days of regulated “natural monopoly,” the FCC must make sure that the IP
universe supports competition and requires interconnection among providers.
Furthermore, if the FCC loses its authority because of the
conversion to IP, disputes between larger providers might create serious
disruptions in the phone network. When AT&T and Comcast/NBCU can’t agree on
the price for NBC programming and lose access to “The Tonight Show,” that’s
annoying. But if AT&T Wireless and Comcast have a “peering dispute” and
AT&T subscribers can’t call Comcast landlines, that is a disruptive
disaster. The FCC must retain enough authority over interconnection to make
such a situation impossible.
Consumer Protection. Consumers expect that their phone calls
stay private, that phone companies must comply with “truth-in-billing” rules,
and that they have recourse when they have complaints about things like service
quality or overcharges. Consumers must not lose their existing protections
because of the change in phone technology.
Network Reliability. Above all else, the phone network actually
works. It does so repeatedly, time
after time after time, in the same predictable and reliable way. That needs to
keep happening. Certainly that includes hardening the network against storms
and other weather events. But we forget just how much we rely on our basic
telephone service on a daily basis, and how that reliability comes from state
and federal regulators making sure network providers don’t cut corners.
Just last week, a software upgrade in AT&T’s U-Verse
service knocked out voice service for days for subscribers. As one U-Verse
customer lamented: “You go on U-verse, and the
old handy dandy landlines that would work no matter what? . . . . That’s not
happening any longer.”
The reason “that’s not
happening any longer” is a policy choice. We can, indeed we must, make the
all-IP network as reliable as the traditional phone network.
Public Safety. Finally, we must make sure that the next
generation of technologies does not mess up 9-1-1 or other emergency
communications. Ideally, the upgrade in technology should improve our emergency
communications capability. While the FCC has already made progress on this in
its Next Generation 9-1-1 proceedings, we must make sure the decisions made in
those proceedings work with the transition as a whole.
Using this Five Fundamentals Framework, the FCC (and
eventually Congress) can both facilitate the upgrade to an all IP network while
simultaneously ensuring that we do not compromise on any of the fundamental
principles that have made our phone system the envy of the world.
This isn’t an engineering problem – it’s a policy choice. Now
is the time to make the policy choices that will form the foundation of the all-IP
network for the 21st Century, just as our decisions to adopt these
five fundamental principles shaped the hone network of the 20th
We must not keep old rules that no longer serve us simply
because they are comforting and familiar, but we must not be so dazzled by the
promise of new technology that we forget the foundational principles on which
these networks must be built. The technology changes, but the social needs and
goals remain the same.