The nation's phone companies have begun the process of transitioning from the classic copper and time-division multiplexing (TDM) technologies to new Internet protocol (IP) technology, and with it the federal government has begun considering how to govern around these changes, as the old rules apply not to the concept of a national telephone system but to the copper network itself.
To aid regulators in their task, on July 25 consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge released a white paper offering a framework—or five sound pieces of advice—for establishing the new policy.
The transition is already underway—AT&T has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to replace some TDM- and copper-based services with wireless-only products, and Verizon is experimenting with a wireless-only fix in areas of New York and New Jersey where Hurricane Sandy destroyed the copper system.
"Things are starting to go wrong," Harold Feld, a PK senior vice president and co-author of the report with PK Senior Staff Attorney Jodie Griffin, said during a July 24 conference call to announce the paper.
"We think part of the problem is this has been a debate about regulations, rather than about values," said Feld. There's no reason that delivering the same services using different technologies should result in "radically different policy goals."
Feld and Griffin argue in the paper:
"We cannot, and should not, demand that companies keep the same copper-based technologies forever. But we also should not assume that the new world will automatically be just as good or better. It can easily be a step backward, as well as a step forward. As we shall see, there was nothing magic about copper that gave us the basic principles of service to all Americans, competition, consumer protection, reliability, and public safety. Rather, deliberate policy choices were responsible for creating the national 9-1-1 system or making sure that everyone had affordable phone service. If we make a different set of choices now, we could easily leave these and other things we associate with the phone system behind."
The five fundamentals discussed in the paper begin with "Service to All Americans."
Griffin explained the original policy promised service to all Americans. If you lived somewhere rural, they built out the network to you. If you were poor, they subsidized your phone.
"The U.S. can't be the first developed nation to step back from the goal of 100 percent coverage," she said. "In the 1930s we put a phone on every farm. There's no reason we can't stick with that value."
Second is "Competition and Interconnection," meaning that if you call someone on a different network, you should be able to continue to expect that the call will go through and be of strong quality and that you won't have to pay more for it.