WASHINGTON—Federal regulators on Thursday took the first step on a journey that will likely lead to the end of the traditional public switched-telephone network and the migration of all voice traffic onto IP-based networks. While there may be twists and turns along the way, including detours set by the FBI, the destination points to more innovative communications services at lower costs.
In launching an examination of IP-enabled communications, the Federal Communications Commission outlined various ways to classify the latest technology to converse remotely. Depending how the various forms of VOIP offerings on the market are classified, there could be a broad range of regulations applied to the services.
Today, the VOIP umbrella includes computer-to-computer calls that travel over the public Internet, like 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 that are upgraded for IP transmissions.
Recognizing the historic implications of his 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. Or, instead, if the service should be regulated if it is used as a substitute for traditional telephony. The commission will also determine how providers should pay each other to access each others networks.
The majority of the commissioners have expressed skepticism about imposing the load of common-carrier regulations on new IP services, but at the same time, they voiced a commitment to address the social obligations of telephone service providers, particularly universal service, 911 and access for people with disabilities.
Challenges ahead from the
Perhaps the most imminent regulatory challenge to IP-enabled telephony is brought by the FBI, which has complained that leaving new voice communications technologies unregulated denies law enforcement the tools needed to tap conversations and otherwise seek information.
The FBI is expected to petition the FCC in the next few weeks to determine what kinds of IP-enable communications should be covered under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, and the commission will initiate a separate proceeding to deal with those questions.
At the same time that it launched the VOIP examination, the FCC ruled that Pulver.coms Free World Dialup service is not subject to telecommunications regulation, classifying it as an information service because it is a software application much like instant messaging or e-mail.
The majority of commissioners expressed a hope that services like Free World Dialup might present a new mode of competition in local telephony—something that the agency has struggled to foment since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
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 and other social policy matters. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein cautioned that the Pulver.com decision seemed to pre-judge the outcome of the VOIP proceeding.
For clothing wholesaler Tramp Inc. in New York, VOIP service from Broadview Networks Inc. is just like regular telephone service, only less expensive, said Srini Parvatheneni, controller at Tramp. The company saved approximately $650 in three months on per-minute usage charges, Parvatheneni said, adding that he is saving money on line charges as well.
“This eliminates the need to pay for each additional line,” he said. “With Broadview, you can have four more lines on the same system. Four customers can be on the line at the same time.”