Principles for a Successful IP Transition: Ubiquity

Every American needs to have affordable access to high-speed fixed and mobile broadband networks. Last month, the Benton Foundation released The New Network Compact: Making the IP Transition Work for Vulnerable Communities. The report, written by Ted Gotsch, includes 10 interrelated principles to help policymakers guide the transition from traditional telephone service to emerging broadband networks. In the coming days, we’ll highlight each of the 10 principles. Today we look at Ubiquity. First and foremost, people must have affordable access to high-speed IP networks to make the transition successful. The idea of voice service for all has been a goal going back to the earliest days of telephone service. Universal service was a principle of the first federal communications law, the Communications Act of 1934, and was enacted as a federal program in its current form as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. U.S. communications law imposes an obligation on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take affirmative steps to provide all Americans with an equal opportunity to access broadband. The law both compels the FCC to promote ubiquitous access to broadband and to avoid steps that would undermine this goal. Under the Communications Act, Congress directed the FCC to promote the deployment of broadband services to all Americans. In particular, in 1996, Congress stated that the FCC “shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans.” Congress specifically determined that broadband offerings are included within the definition of “advanced telecommunications capability.” Moreover, the law obligates the FCC to monitor the roll out of broadband and to take steps to promote broadband deployment if it is not being extended to all Americans on a timely basis. If this determination is made, the FCC “shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” Likewise, Congress determined that “[i]t shall be the policy of the United States to encourage the provision of new technologies and services to the public.” Congress also mandated that “[a]ccess to advanced telecommunications and information services should be provided in all regions of the Nation.” In February 2009, Congress reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring ubiquitous access to broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the “ARRA”), Congress charged the FCC with developing a national broadband plan that “shall seek to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability and shall establish benchmarks for meeting that goal.” As the FCC has noted, the ARRA “reshaped national priorities by bringing increased intensity to the national goal of ubiquitous broadband deployment.” In light of the ARRA, “the nation’s broadband policy goals now seek to encourage increased utilization of broadband in addition to the ubiquitous deployment of broadband facilities.” The FCC has repeatedly recognized Congress’s goal of promoting the ubiquitous availability of broadband and has embraced it as an agency goal as well. The FCC determined that the “[r]apid deployment and ubiquitous availability of broadband services across the country are among the Commission’s most critical policy objectives.” The FCC also stated that its “end goal is to ensure the ubiquitous and affordable availability of broadband for all Americans.” A federal agency goal is no small thing. In fact, it is unlawful for an agency to act in a manner that undercuts its stated goals. Indeed, the D.C. Circuit has held that “[r]ational decisionmaking . . . dictates that the agency simply cannot employ means that actually undercut its own purported goals.” As the nation transitions from traditional telephone service to relying on broadband networks, then, we need to make sure that every American, regardless of the zip code in which they live or the color of their skin, have access to truly high-speed IP networks. But today, millions of American's lack broadband service at home. The kind of high-speed fiber networks we need to not only keep up with other countries seeking to out-compete us, but to deliver on the full-promise of the IP transition, are not getting to the poor, minority, and rural communities that can benefit most. Thus, to ensure the IP transition succeeds, we need high speed networks that are as truly ubiquitous as the landline telephone networks are today. In the age of broadband, how do we make certain that IP networks are as ubiquitous as today’s landline telephone network? The FCC spent parts of the last four years revamping all four universal service fund (USF) programs to help spur the deployment of high-speed networks. Many, however, are raising questions about how to achieve an IP future that includes all Americans. Olivia Wein, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, observed, “We are concerned about rural American and low-income communities. Is [the service] comparable or better? If it is not, we would argue it isn’t ubiquitous.” Edyael Casaperalta, a program associate with the Center for Rural Strategies, shared similar concerns. She noted that upwards of 96% of homes currently have voice service nationwide, but tribal communities lag far behind. Broadband access and adoption numbers in these communities are even smaller, and she worries disparities will increase significantly with the switch to IP. “When we think about ubiquity, we think about coverage of 100%,” she said. But she wondered what would happen to the 19 million Americans still without access to any wired network. Will telecom carriers expand their infrastructure? “Will they have reason enough to serve those areas?” There is some concern that too much of the burden will be placed on the Universal Service Fund to pay for deployment of the broadband networks needed to ensure a successful transition. Several advocates said that program cannot do all the heavy lifting alone. A few stakeholders do see an essential role for the USF’s rural-focused program as it transitions into the broadband-focused Connect America Fund (CAF). Wally Bowen, Founder and Executive Director of the Mountain Area Information Network, said commercial providers cannot be depended on to bring upgraded networks to all. “By contrast,” he noted, “the two business models used by local networks necessarily are the private nonprofit or the public/municipal.” Bowen feels strongly that local nonprofit and municipal networks should be made eligible for CAF support. He strongly emphasized the historical analogue of the rural electric cooperatives, of which more than eighty percent were private nonprofits locally owned and controlled and completely independent of any government ownership. “Indeed, for many unincorporated rural areas, there was/is NO municipal government with which to partner,” Bowen said. “My fear … is that the public interest community is too set in its ways and will continue to fight -- and lose -- the wrong battle: trying to force the incumbents to serve areas which their corporate self-interest compels them to neglect,” he said. Other advocates said the deployment needed is possible using a mix of IP-enabled technologies, including wireless, that would allow for cheaper deployment to rural and the most remote areas. They insist it is not realistic to expect all Americans to have access to the same telecom services using IP networks when they don’t have access using the PSTN or wireless networks where they live right now. Tom Kamber, Executive Director of Older Adults Technology Services, said more stakeholders need to embrace the changes and work to reduce any negative aspects. He commented, “The issue is how do you manage a market trend like [the IP transition]? It is happening already.” Some advocates think that differences among different IP-enabled infrastructures are being overemphasized. Matthew Rantanen, Chairman of the Native Public Media board of directors, said the Tribal Digital Village initiative that he oversees in Southern California, which uses fixed wireless, delivers 500 Mbps to its data center and up to 10 Mbps service to the 19 reservations it serves in San Diego and Riverside counties. He said it is time to stop discounting the technology. “People don’t give it the chance it deserves,” Rantanen said. “You can make a very good deployment platform based on wireless.” However, as reports out of Fire Island, N.Y., and elsewhere reveal, not all wireless IP services are created equally or capable of delivering high speeds and a full range of communications services. Given the FCC’s statutory mandates and its established priorities, the agency should closely analyze how the IP transition will impact the digital divide. By performing this analysis, the FCC will acquire the information it needs to ensure that its IP transition policies are consistent with its determination that ubiquitous access to broadband is one of the Commission’s most critical policy objectives. Specifically, the FCC should craft any new rules and policies in a manner that ensures, to the extent possible, that the transition will be instrumental in closing the digital divide. The FCC should also consider the importance of focusing on broadband adoption, education and training when crafting IP transition trials and policies. The importance of adoption, barriers to adoption, and means of achieving adoption, especially among minority, multilingual and vulnerable populations, should be at the top of the agenda for negotiating a successful transition. The FCC should aim at enabling underserved populations – in particular, rural and low-income households – to acquire and make effective use of broadband service.