FCC Creates Tech Task Force to Address AT&T Upgrade

A new FCC-created Task Force will, among other things, address the need for new laws as AT&T upgrades its copper to an IP network.

The Federal Communications Commission, challenged to keep legislation in sync with a fast-evolving, technology-driven world, has created a Technology Transitions Policy Task Force.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in a Dec. 10 statement, said he hoped that the Task Force would play a key role in answering the question: "In a broadband world, how can we best ensure that our nation's communications policies continue to drive a virtuous cycle of innovation and investment, promote competition and protect consumers?"

The Task Force will include representatives from across the FCC, including its chief economist and chief technology officer. FCC General Counsel Sean Lev will serve as its interim director and Rebekah Goodheart, associate chief of the Wireline Communication Bureau, will serve as deputy director.

Among other issues, said Genachowski, the Task Force will "coordinate the Commission's efforts on IP interconnection, resiliency of 21st century communications networks, business broadband competition and consumer protection with a particular focus on voice services."

This particular issue addresses the Nov. 7 petition AT&T filed with the FCC, asking it to "open a proceeding to take the next steps to 'facilitate the transition' away from the legacy TDM-based [time division multiplexing-based] network to an 'all-[Internet Protocol (IP)]' that is capable of supporting broadband Internet access, higher-layer [voice over IP) VOIP, and other advanced communications services for all Americans."

The petition coincided with AT&T's announcement that it will invest $14 billion over three years to expand and enhance its wireless and wireline networks. The work AT&T intends to do includes transitioning its copper networks to IP—a move that consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge has applauded, albeit cautiously.

"We want this investment to happen," Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, wrote in a Nov. 13 blog post. Those critical of the upgrade, he wrote, may be overlooking two critical aspects.

"First, it was only a few months ago when all copper was supposedly destined for the ash-heap of history, and the war between cable and copper settled entirely in cable's favor. This upgrade potentially restores DSL as a viable, low-cost alternative able to put price-pressure on cable systems and force cable operators ... to accelerate their own upgrades," Feld explained.

As current telephone legislation is tied directly to copper, the second and more important factor, Feld continued, is that the upgrade "will have major impacts on spectrum policy and vastly accelerate the shift to small cell architecture and the trend of enhanced reliance on unlicensed spectrum to augment licensed spectrum."

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, in his own statement on the formation of the Task Force—which he pointed out he called for the formation of months ago—said that a great transformation of the Internet "is upon us."

"The analog, circuit-switched copper-wire networks that dominated the 20th century communications marketplace are being replaced by competitive fiber networks that digitally distribute voice, video and data services. Yet our rules continue to presume static domination by monopoly," Pai went on.

"We need a forward-looking regulatory framework that will expedite the Internet Protocol transition and accommodate—indeed, encourage—the most important technology revolution of our time."

The Task Force, said Genachowski, will also be responsible for considering recommendations from the Technological Advisory Committee on the PSTN transition, coordinating with the NARUC Presidential Task Force on Federalism and Telecommunications and evaluating feedback from the FCC's pending field hearings on Hurricane Sandy.

Still additionally, it will conduct data-driven reviews and make recommendations to modernize the Commission's policies in a way that "encourages the technological transition, empowers and protects consumers, promotes competition and ensures network resiliency and reliability."