Tom Wheeler has jumped into his role as the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by announcing a need to address the wireless networks' evolution from circuit-switched time-division multiplexing (TDM), or the old "copper networks," as they're often called, to Internet Protocol, or IP-based.
"This is what I have called the Fourth Network Revolution, and it is a good thing," Wheeler wrote in a Nov. 19 blog post.
Wheeler also points out that AT&T and the NTCA (the Rural Broadband Association) asked the FCC about a year ago to begin discussions about the transition, and the FCC responded by calling for comments, of which it has received more than 400.
"We have listened, and now it is time to act," wrote Wheeler.
At the Commission's Dec. 12 meeting an update will be presented, with the expectation that a meeting the following month will include "consideration for an Order for immediate action." The Order should include, among other things, "a process for Commission consideration of legal, policy and technical issues that would not neatly fit within the experiments, with a game plan for efficiently managing the various adjudications and rulemakings that, together, will constitute our IP transition agenda," he wrote.
Wheeler went on to say that the Order should include recommendations for speeding along the processes of performing experiments and analyzing their outcomes; explain how the FCC will get feedback on the transition from federal, state and tribal agencies; and offer a plan for considering the legal and policy questions that this "network revolution" will inevitably raise.
Wheeler also quoted two of his fellow commissioners—Jessica Rosenworcel, who said that policy around these changes should keep in mind "public safety, universal access, competition and consumer protection," and Mignon Clyburn, who tasked the Commission to "carefully examine and collect data on the impact of technology transitions on consumers, public safety and competition."
Wheeler declared himself in agreement with both of them, a gentle way at hinting that more than simply a tech upgrade or progress, the move from TDM to IP is a serious change.
When AT&T, days after Hurricane Sandy, made its request to the FCC to begin a dialogue about the transition away from copper, Harold Feld, senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, called the request the "single most important development in telecom since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996."
Government regulations around telephone services aren't pinned to phone providers, but to the copper networks. While there are rules in place protecting consumers' privacy, for example, or the need for the system to work 99.999 percent of the time, those same rules don't currently apply to IP.
Some New Yorkers began to understand this after Sandy, when Verizon replaced sections of washed-out copper with an IP-based solution called VoiceLink.
"The FCC must ensure that the policies and principles that have guaranteed that the telephone network is universal, accessible and reliable continue to apply to the communications networks of the 21st Century," Feld said in a Nov. 19 blog post, responding to Wheeler's post.
Feld added that it's important for the FCC to make clear that the transition is not about any one carrier's network. "It impacts the lives and well-being of every American," wrote Feld. "Nobody should doubt that this is a complex process, but it's important that the FCC lead the transition and take a major role in coordinating its outcome."