Federal regulators last week took the first step on a journey that could lead to the end of the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network and the migration of most voice traffic to IP-based networks.
While there are sure to be twists along the way, including detours being pondered by federal law enforcement, the destination is a place with more innovative communications services at lower costs.
In launching an examination of IP-enabled communications, the Federal Communications Commission outlined ways to classify the technology. Currently, the VOIP (voice-over-IP) umbrella includes computer-to-computer calls that travel over the public Internet, such as those made through Pulver.com Inc.s Free World Dialup; calls between computers and phones, such as those delivered by Vonage Inc.; and more traditional phone-to-phone calls that travel over dedicated networks upgraded for IP transmissions.
Recognizing the historic implications of the decision to propose federal rules for Internet-enabled technologies, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the opportunities presented by IP are greater than its challenges. "This [proposal] in many ways is the curtain going up on a new era in telecommunications," Powell said. "This is digital migration in spades."
In its review, the FCC will ask whether regulations should be applied to an IP-enabled voice service if it connects with the Public Switched Telephone Network.
Perhaps the most imminent regulatory challenge to IP-enabled telephony is posed by the FBI, which has complained that leaving new voice communications technologies unregulated denies law enforcement the tools needed to tap conversations. The FBI is expected to petition the FCC in the next few weeks to determine what kinds of IP communications should be covered under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.
At the same time that it launched the VOIP examination last week, the FCC ruled that Pulver.coms Free World Dialup service is not subject to telecommunications regulation, classifying it as an information service much like instant messaging or e-mail.
But FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, noting the concerns of the FBI, said he was troubled by the decision to declare Free World Dialup unregulated before addressing public safety challenges. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein cautioned that the Pulver.com decision seemed to prejudge the outcome of the VOIP proceeding.