What Comes Next in the IP Transition: Voluntary, Service-Based Experiments

On January 30, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) invited voluntary experiments meant to kick-start data collection initiatives that will allow the FCC and the public to evaluate how customers are affected by the historic technology transitions that are transforming our nation’s voice communications services – from a network based on time-division multiplexed (TDM) circuit-switched voice services running on copper loops to an all-Internet Protocol (IP) network using copper, co-axial cable, wireless, and fiber as physical infrastructure. The purpose of these experiments is to speed market-driven technological transitions and innovations by preserving the FCC’s core, interdependent and mutually reinforcing values as codified by Congress that exist today – public safety, ubiquitous and affordable access, competition, and consumer protection.

These technology transitions – referred to generally as the IP Transition – promise many benefits for the nation: modernizing communications networks can dramatically reduce network costs, allowing providers to serve customers with increased efficiencies that can lead to improved and innovative product offerings and lower prices. It also catalyzes further investments in innovation that both enhance existing products and unleash new services, applications and devices, thus powering economic growth.

But the IP Transition also brings risk. The FCC recognizes that in the natural course of this progression, there will come a tipping point where the adoption of new communications technologies reaches a critical mass and most providers wish to cease offering legacy services. That will remove a choice from the marketplace: the choice that has been the source of the enduring values for generations and the service that Congress marked as essential to all Americans. Customer expectations may become unsettled, established business models may crumble as the assumptions on which they are built become outdated, and the rules of the road may be called into question through the uncertain application of existing rules to new technologies. These changes can ripple throughout society, requiring accommodations and investments by those affected. While technology transitions always risk unsettling particular expectations, such changes also pose societal risks. If technology transitions are implemented with insufficient regard for customers, the enduring and shared network values may be sacrificed – a result that should be unacceptable to all.

In its January decision, the FCC revealed how it will approach these risks. The experiments, the FCC stresses, are not focused on technology – nor on resolving legal or policy questions. Instead, the FCC seeks to assess how the modernization of communications networks is affecting the achievement of its mandated goals -- public safety, ubiquitous and affordable access, competition, and consumer protection. The FCC embarked on three concurrent paths:

  • First, the FCC welcomes any and all interested providers to submit detailed proposals to test real-world applications of planned changes in technology that are likely to have tangible effects on consumers. These voluntary service-based experiments will examine the impacts of replacing existing customer services with IP-based alternatives in discrete geographic areas or ways.
  • Second, in parallel to the above, the FCC invites targeted experiments and cooperative research to explore the impact of technology transitions that focus on universal access. These proof-of-concept initiatives are focused on new technologies for particular groups of consumers, aspects of network functions, or more effective ways to reach all Americans.
    • One of these experiments explores ways to examine the impact of technology transitions on rural Americans, including those living on Tribal lands, and ensures that, as networks transition, they are not left behind.
    • The FCC is developing and funding an interagency collaborative research program into IP-based technologies for individuals with disabilities.
    • The FCC also aims to facilitate the development of a "numbering test bed" to address concerns raised about number assignment and databases in an all-IP world, without disrupting current systems.
  • Third, the FCC proposes an ongoing data initiative and seeks feedback on a number of other efforts to improve collection of data about how technological evolutions are impacting network values – data that the FCC needs to make informed decisions and speed the technology transitions.

In this, the first in a series describing the FCC’s decision, we look at voluntary service-based experiments the FCC is inviting. Here’s what the FCC is expecting from carrier applicants and the timeline for determining which experiments will get an OK to proceed.

I. Voluntary Experiments

The FCC is soliciting prompt, detailed proposals for service-based experiments, in diverse but limited arenas, in which incumbent telephone service providers seek to substitute new communications technologies for the TDM-based services over copper lines that they currently are providing to customers, with an eye toward discontinuing those legacy services -- and in which others may propose new and innovative services that bring benefits to consumers while preserving the enduring values of our nation’s communications networks. The aim is to create “arenas of innovation” which “afford applicants flexibility.”

These experiments are voluntary on the part of the providers. No provider will be forced to participate in an experiment, and no provider, once an experiment has been initiated, will be forced to continue an experiment if it otherwise decides the experiment is no longer worth pursuing and it should simply revert to previously-offered services. However, any information gathered during that experiment, would be important information for the FCC to consider, and we expect that any provider would need to at least inform the FCC that it is no longer pursuing the experiment, and provide the FCC with any relevant data.

In addition, no experiment can be initiated in a manner that requires existing customers to participate. To the extent that providers wish to temporarily stop offering new deployments of legacy services (e.g., to new customers) at the initiation of an experiment, federal law requires providers to obtain authority to discontinue, reduce, or impair service. No provider may permanently terminate the offering of legacy services until and unless it receives a “final” approval in which the FCC determines that action to be in the public interest.

All proposals must provide sufficiently detailed information about how the experiments will be designed to allow meaningful public comment and thorough FCC evaluation of the proposed experiment. In order to allow for such meaningful review, the FCC expects that it will need to evaluate the following:

  • The purpose and proposed metrics for measuring success;
  • Experimental scope or arena (which could be a geography, product, or service offering);
  • Technical parameters, including descriptions of any physical or other network changes and how they will: (a) affect customers and other providers and (b) impact product or service offerings;
  • Timelines for experiment, including timelines for the proposed network changes, the timing of any impacts on customers, and when the experiment is likely to be complete;
  • What temporary regulatory relief or other FCC action would be required to conduct the proposed experiment.

A. Public Safety and National Security

Public safety, emergency preparedness and response, and national security are fundamental government functions that must be addressed as technologies transition.

Carriers must demonstrate in their applications that:

  • Consumers receive effective and timely public safety response in emergencies; service-based experiments can in no way diminish consumer access to 911/E911 emergency services; public safety answering points (PSAPs) (the call centers responsible for answering calls to an emergency telephone number for police, firefighting, and ambulance services) continue to receive all consumer, phone identifying, and automatically-provided street address location information associated with a 911/E911 call; and PSAPs must be provided with at least the same level of network access, resiliency, redundancy, and security that they enjoy under agreements and tariffs currently framing the legacy emergency network.
  • If there is a public safety failure in an experiment, the carrier must be able to immediately fix the IP-based service, restore its legacy service, or provide a comparable service.
  • There will be no disruption to national security, emergency preparedness, and public safety operations that today depend on existing TDM-based communications services. Experiments must allow for the continuation of legacy TDM-based networks and services for critical governmental systems until it is proven that other solutions can meet system requirements for the performance of safety of life and national security missions.
  • Reasonable measures have been taken to ensure that the network services are protected from cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities.
  • Communications services will be maintained in the event of a power outage. Applicants must explain the provision backup power, for at least 24 hours, both for facilities within the provider’s network and for end-user equipment located at customer premises.
  • It will report network outages to the FCC.
  • They satisfy obligations of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) which requires a ‘telecommunications carrier to ensure that equipment, facilities, or services that allow a customer or subscriber to originate, terminate, or direct communications, enable law enforcement officials to conduct electronic surveillance pursuant to court order or other lawful authorization.

The FCC is presuming that:

  • Experiments will maintain current levels of network reliability, including the ability to place phone calls, to function during commercial power failures, and to maintain security from external attack.
  • Applicants who have elected to provide Wireless Emergency Alerts over some or all of their current service areas’ legacy infrastructure will continue to provide WEA or equivalent alerting capability and will establish appropriate monitoring to ensure that these alerts are effectively received during the course of experimental operations.
  • Legacy Emergency Alert System capabilities will be maintained during the course of experiments, to ensure that the public is protected in case of experiment failures.
  • Applicants will maintain valuable priority access, routing, provisioning, and restoration programs to support essential national security and emergency preparedness communications. The FCC will need to understand how these services will be provided, and if there are additional priority communications capabilities that are available in the IP environment to support national security and emergency preparedness.

B. Universal Access

The FCC has a statutory responsibility to help advance network-based communications for all the people of the United States. The IP Transition holds tremendous promise for enhancing universal access, and the FCC seeks, through these experiments, to learn how best to accelerate the delivery of these benefits to all Americans. The FCC invites experiments that test the breadth of access as well as identify any vulnerabilities. Carriers must demonstrate in their applications that:

  • Access to communications for persons with disabilities, including those living on Tribal lands, will not be jeopardized. Proposals are to explain, for example, how the experiment will comply with the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 which, in part, requires advanced communications services and products to be accessible to people with disabilities. In designing experiments, providers should pay particular attention to access to 911 services by individuals with disabilities; the provision of Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS); the transmission of remote closed captions; and the development and use of and compatibility with assistive technologies.
  • The experiment protects the interests of any specific populations -- the elderly, individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP), low-income populations, residents of Tribal lands, and others who likely will be affected by changes in communications technology in ways different from the general population -- that are potentially at risk, including ensuring that no consumer loses access to service or critical functionalities as a result of the experiment.

The FCC is presuming that:

  • Applicants will continue to be subject to all existing universal service rules and policies regarding both support and contribution obligations. Federal law directs the FCC to ensure universal access to quality services, including advanced telecommunications and information services, at just, reasonable, and affordable rates in all regions of the country.
  • Carriers will continue to provide the same or better levels of Internet access regardless of the technology used. Reducing broadband access will not be among the acceptable costs of network modernization.
  • Offerings based on new technology will offer equivalent or better quality to comparable legacy-based services. By quality of service, the FCC includes attributes of a service that would be directly quantifiable by a customer as well as performance objectives such as blocking or failure rates that might be set by the service provider.

C. Competition

One of the core tenants of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is that competition enables consumers to benefit from lower prices, new services, new investment, and more innovation. In crafting experiments, applicants must demonstrate that:

  • If wholesale customers are involved, they are invited to participate voluntarily.
  • The experiment maintains the status quo in providing interconnection arrangements to both existing and new customers. A proposed experiment may not result in the cessation or impairment of service for providers, or for the end-user customers of such providers, that are interconnected in an experiment arena (e.g., a wire center). The FCC must be able to evaluate whether customers in experiment arenas will be able to select their own long-distance company (interexchange carrier or IXC) and how IXCs will complete interstate long-distance or international calls to customers participating in the experiment.

D. Consumer Protection

New communications technologies present myriad opportunities for service enhancements, including consumer protections that do not exist yet. The FCC seeks to encourage development of those enhancements to ensure that all experiments preserve consumer protection values. Carriers must demonstrate in their applications that:

  • The experiment complies with existing requirements to protect consumer privacy. Applicants must ensure that their proposed experiments maintain network users’ reasonable expectations of privacy, regardless of the technology used.
  • The experiment complies with truth-in-billing rules, which are intended to address both slamming (illegal switching of service) and cramming -- placing unauthorized, misleading or deceptive charges on a telephone bill.
  • Consumers will be able retain their phone number if they decide to switch providers (known more formally as number portability).
  • Routing and call delivery processes are in place so calls are successfully completed. The FCC encourages carriers to test advanced call routing technologies, while ensuring that consumers are able to call everyone they formerly were able to call over their legacy service without call completion failures.

E. Customer Notice Requirements

Since the purpose of these experiments is to learn what the redesign of our communications networks means for individuals and businesses, the FCC is requiring that all applicants must provide clear, timely, and sufficient notice of any service-based experiment. The FCC expects carriers to provide simple, easy-to-use means for consumers to give feedback on experiments – and to notify consumers about ways to provide feedback in a clear and conspicuous manner, which can include mail, e-mail, and bill inserts.

In addition, the FCC’s current notice requirements shall continue to apply, including notice of discontinuance and notice of network change requirements. The FCC asks that carriers fairly present any potential trade-offs that might accompany a technology transition, and clearly describe any differences in the terms, or conditions of any experimental offerings compared to the provider’s legacy offerings.

F. Data Collection

One measure of the success of an experiment is the quality of the data it produces. The FCC says it will find useful experiments that collect and provide the Commission data on key attributes of IP-based services, such as network capacity, call quality, device interoperability, service to persons with disabilities, system availability, 911 and PSAP service, cybersecurity, call persistence, call functionality, and service coverage. The FCC expects, but does not require, each experiment to include a control group by which to evaluate the performance of the experimental group, unless the nature of the experiment would not accommodate a control group. The FCC will also consider how applicants will measure the economic impact of experiments, such as any changes in telecommunications-related employment and skill mix as well as other effects on local economic opportunities

G. Timeline

The FCC wants to begin the experiments as soon as possible. To increase the possibility that any evidence generated by these experiments benefits the FCC, network providers, and the public in advancing these parallel processes, they have established a speedy time frame for the solicitation and consideration of proposed experiments. The following deadlines shall apply to the first round of experiments:

  • Experiment proposals due Thursday, February 20, 2014
  • Public Notice seeking comment on submitted proposals shortly after the proposals are filed
  • Comments due Friday, March 21, 2014
  • Replies due Monday, March 31, 2014
  • FCC decision within approximately 60 days of the reply comment deadline.

The FCC invites proposals after this tight, initial time frame, but will not consider additional experiments after 1 year from the date of the FCC’s action on the initial set of approvals.

By Kevin Taglang.