Getting to All-IP
Telecommunications is a key element in some of the most headline-grabbing news of the week, especially the report from the Associated Press that the Justice Department secretly obtained telephone records of the news organization’s reporters and editors. But we want to highlight a development at the Federal Communications Commission that garnered almost no press at all.
On May 10, the Federal Communications Commission released a Public Notice seeking public comment on how to structure real world trials that will inform the transition from today’s telephone networks to, well, the networks of tomorrow. The goal of any trials would be to gather a factual record to help determine what policies are appropriate to promote investment and innovation while protecting consumers, promoting competition, and ensuring that emerging networks remain resilient.
The Public Notice comes from the FCC’s Technology Transitions Policy Task Force (1) which was announced back in December 2012. At the time, the FCC noted that the nation’s broadband transition means that communications networks are increasingly migrating from special purpose to general purpose, from circuit-switched to packet-switched, and from copper to fiber and wireless-based networks. In announcing the Task Force, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said its role is answer a fundamental policy question: “In a broadband world, how can we best ensure that our nation’s communications policies continue to drive a virtuous cycle of innovation and investment, promote competition, and protect consumers?” The Task Force is charged with providing recommendations to modernize the FCC’s policies in a process that encourages the technological transition, empowers and protects consumers, promotes competition, and ensures network resiliency and reliability.
Chairman Genachowski admits that the FCC’s rules were written “for a different technological and market landscape”, but that the changes in technology do not change the basic mission of the FCC. That mission, as mandated by law, (2) is to “make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, rapid, efficient, Nation-wide and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” In addition, the FCC was created “for the purpose of the national defense” and “for the purpose of promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications.” (3)
The Technology Transitions Policy Task Force is tasked, in part, to consider recommendations from the FCC’s Technological Advisory Committee (TAC). In 2011, the TAC , chaired by FCC chairman-nominee Tom Wheeler, recommended that the FCC:
- Develop a detailed plan for an orderly transition from the current public switched telephone network (PSTN) system of record to a service rich network for achieving key national goals. The plan should include:
- A public-private partnership with industry, providers, and relevant organizations and stakeholders.
- Coordination mechanisms for the ongoing evolution of the network to rapidly incorporate new technologies and capabilities.
- Provide the public with the vision of what we are transitioning to: New services and capabilities which can greatly exceed the current services of the PSTN
- Provide a roadmap and communicate the urgency to take action to avoid the loss of capability to support critical services.
In the FCC’s new proceeding, it seeks comment on several potential trials relating to the ongoing transitions from copper to fiber, from wireline to wireless, and from time-division multiplexing (TDM) (4) to all-Internet Protocol (IP) networks.
- VoIP Interconnection: Concerning the move from TDM to all-IP networks, providers are migrating to voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) interconnection. VoIP interconnection should be more efficient and has the potential to unleash new, innovative services and features. The FCC seeks comment on a VoIP interconnection trial that would gather data to determine whether there are technical issues that need to be addressed and gather information relevant to the appropriate policy framework.
- Public Safety - NG911: As we transition away from TDM, the nation’s emergency calling (911) system must also migrate to Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911). (5) Although there is broad consensus regarding the benefits and potential of NG911, when these new capabilities will be introduced is less certain. The FCC seeks comment on a trial that will assist the Commission, state, local and Tribal governments, and Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in a few geographic areas to answer important technical and policy questions to accelerate the transition. Beyond NG911, the FCC also seeks comment on how a trial could elicit data on the impact of network resiliency and public safety more broadly as consumers migrate to wireless and IP-based services that are dependent on commercial power. The FCC’s current Strategic Plan notes that the commission continues to facilitate the deployment of 911 services and technologies and to pave the way for greater capabilities, by helping define the system architecture and develop a transition plan to establish a digital, Internet Protocol (IP)-based foundation for the delivery of multimedia 9-1-1 "calls." 911 call centers could receive text, pictures and videos from members of the public, providing additional information to first responders as well as an additional means for persons who are injured, witness an accident or are too disabled to contact a 911 dispatcher. The Commission will also take steps to ensure that all segments of the communications industry can provide effective and technologically up-to-date public alerts and warnings to the American public, including through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN).
- Wireline to Wireless: At least one provider, Verizon, has proposed serving consumers with wireless service in place of wireline service in certain geographic areas. The FCC seeks comment on a trial that would analyze the impact of doing so and, in particular, focus on the consumer experience and ensure that consumers have the ability to move back to a wireline product during the trial. We saw a couple stories related to this transition this week. In Mantoloking (NJ), Verizon has no plans to rebuild its copper-line telephone network that was damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Instead, Verizon says Mantoloking is the first town in New Jersey, and one of the few areas in the country, to have a new service called Verizon Voice Link. Essentially, it connects your home’s wired and cordless telephones to the Verizon Wireless network. There’s a similar plan for Fire Island (NY). But the union representing Verizon workers said the transition will be bad news for both consumers and businesses. During major disasters like Sandy with long power outages, the cellular systems tend to get overloaded, and cell towers can run out of power. And by abandoning landline DSL service, Verizon will be leaving customers to fend for themselves with the cable companies, who won't face any more competition for Internet service.
The FCC is asking for public input on these three potential trials including:
- Legal and administrative issues as well as general structure and design of any trial.
- How to best coordinate the trials with local, state and Tribal entities.
- Whether the trials should be conducted in a single geographic area, if there is information to be gained from a general geographic trial that would not be gathered from the more targeted trials, and the costs and benefits of the alternative approaches.
- How best to ensure a successful trial while also avoiding potential harmful impacts to consumers
- What data to collect to guide sound policymaking regarding the ongoing technological transitions.
The FCC is asking if there are other trials that should be considered, such as additional numbering trials, trials to facilitate better access for persons with disabilities, and whether there are additional trials concerning the TDM to IP or copper to fiber transitions. Specifically, the FCC asks if it should conduct trials that focus on consumer protection and universal service. Should there be a trial that focuses on improving access to communications services for low-income Americans and improves the FCC's Lifeline program? Is a trial the right setting for the Commission to explore ways to test the appropriate monthly support amount for Lifeline voice service to better gauge the appropriate price point both for consumers and carriers who provide Lifeline services? Are there other universal service issues that could be tested in a trial? The FCC also seeks input on whether it should have any trials that focus specifically on the delivery of services to consumers and communities on Tribal lands.
We’re already seeing how the larger questions about the transition are impacting availability and investment of tomorrow’s networks. Google Fiber is expanding from the Kansas City area to additional cities. Just after the announcement of Google Fiber coming to Austin (TX), the local incumbent announced plans for a gigabit broadband network there, too. Bill Smith, President of AT&T Network Operations, said the 1 Gbps plans had already been on the drawing board for a while. And CEO Randall Stephenson told investors this week, “We will probably piggyback on the rules and terms and condition that Google received in Austin and do our own build in Austin.” AT&T has had a tougher time with its own fiber deployment because cities have required it to build its network out to the entire community -- a costly project. But Google has been able to approach it differently, building only to homes and neighborhoods where it makes economic sense – where consumers commit to buy the service. It's a change that AT&T hopes to mimic. Of course, that raises questions about whether tomorrow’s networks will be universally available in areas throughout the country.
The FCC proceeding (GN Docket No. 13-5, if you’re scoring at home) has not yet been published in the Federal Register. Once it has, the public will have 45 days to comment and 75 days to reply to initial comments. After these comments are collected this summer, it will take some time for the FCC to review them, so this is an issue that will be simmering for the rest of 2013 and beyond. Which brings us back to Tom Wheeler.
As the Senate considers Wheeler’s nomination to head the FCC, Stephanie Chen of The Greenlining Institute penned an op-ed for The Hill that raises a number of questions senators could ask of him -- just the sort of questions that the FCC will be considering in the coming month:
Increasingly, telephone service is moving to Internet-based (VoIP) systems, but to the customer, a phone call is a phone call. Customers aren’t concerned with what technology is involved; they care that service is reliable, available and affordable. Given that reality, how should the different technologies used to provide voice services be regulated? Should the type of wires determine the sort of regulation needed, or should the function the technology serves for the customer be the determining factor? And given that it is used to make phone calls, is VoIP a communications service or an information service? What should be the role of the states in regulating those services?
- The Task Force includes the FCC’s Chief Economist and Chief Technology Officer, as well as representatives from across the agency, including staff from the Wireline, Wireless, Media, Consumer Affairs, and Public Safety Bureaus, as well as the Office of General Counsel and the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis.
- 47 U.S.C. § 151.
- Also known as digital circuit switched, TDM has its roots in 19th century technology that created our current public telephone system. Currently, TDM allows several telephone conversations to be transmitted over the same four-wire copper cable.
- NG911 refers to an initiative aimed at enabling the public to obtain emergency assistance by means of advanced communications technologies beyond traditional voice-centric devices.