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.
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The third fundamental is “Consumer Protection.” The same privacy principles that apply to the copper networks should apply to IP, PK argues, and so should truth-in-billing practices and consumers’ rights to the timely resolution of an issue.
“When you lose connection to your voice service, especially when that happens to a whole community at once [as it did on Fire Island, N.Y., during Hurricane Sandy], that’s a disaster,” said Griffin.
The fourth fundamental is “Reliability,” which in short means that when someone places a call, it needs to go through with the same fitness we expect from the current system.
The FCC plans to run pilot programs before setting policy, and PK has referred to the situation on Fire Island, where Verizon has deployed a solution called Voice Link instead of laying new copper, as a pilot program already underway.
“I feel bad for Verizon, they got a bad hand [with Hurricane Sandy],” said Feld. “But their decision of what’s good enough is not what the people of Fire Island think is good enough—or frankly what we think is good enough.”
Finally, the fifth fundamental is “Public Safety.”
“We cannot assume that the carriers will voluntarily bear the expense of building robustness in the networks themselves, in particular because carriers have not always voluntarily increased their network reliability in the past,” states the report. “For example, one study estimated that 75 percent of the power-related outages from 1996 to 2003 could have been avoided if carriers had followed the best system practices established by the Network Reliability Steering Committee.”
Feld added during the call, “These are values. We don’t say, ‘Let’s not have a rule against assault until there’s evidence of an assault problem.’ No … you establish it so it’s there when you need it. Not when it’s too late.”
He continued, “The FCC has asked, ‘What should guide us?’ We’re saying, these five fundamentals are the checklist.”