General

At the official blog of the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Tom Wheeler lays out the Commission’s commitment to achieving the transition to all-Internet based networks. As the Chairman writes:

Among the biggest changes the FCC must confront are the IP transitions. Note the use of the plural “transitions.” Circuit switching is being replaced by more efficient networks – made of fiber or copper or wireless. Greater efficiency in networks can translate into greater innovation and greater benefits for network operators and users alike.

The best way to speed technology transitions is to incent network investment and innovation by preserving the enduring values that consumers and businesses have come to expect. Those values: public safety, interconnection, competition, consumer protection and, of course, universal access, are not only familiar, they are fundamental.

Those very same values were highlighted by our own Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher in an op-ed for Bloomberg Government in November:

Government must play a key role throughout this process by advancing consumer interests with a transition plan guided by core principles. These basic protections will remain government’s responsibility even after the old phone system is shut down:

1. The commitment to universal service must endure. Next-generation high-speed broadband networks and their benefits must be available to every American. As we move beyond the old phone network, we cannot leave anybody behind. Without dictating specific technologies or micro-managing how communications competitors meet their public service obligations, we must push the envelope to ensure that every American can access modern broadband service and enjoy the benefits that come with it. At a minimum, post transition everybody should enjoy service at least as good as they can now receive from copper-wire phone networks.

2. Public safety must be assured. 911 emergency calls must go through—every single time—no matter what technology or services consumers adopt.

3. Services for the hearing-impaired and those with vision problems also must be retained at levels that at least match what consumers enjoy today.

4. Consumer protection must remain at the heart of communications policy. Consumers must know that government has their back; that service providers will deliver on their promises; that spotty service, fraud, or other abuses will not be tolerated. Consumers must have a place to take complaints with confidence that something will be done about them.

5. Establishing a backup plan for power failures should be part of the transition process. The rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy exposed some potential weaknesses in the way our digital technology works today. While fiber-optic-based systems tolerate water damage that can short out copper wires, they are more vulnerable when the electricity at the user’s premises goes out.

6. Special retrofitting and other creative solutions may be required to ensure that modern networks function fully with personal and business equipment such as fax machines, security systems, health monitors, and credit card readers, even though they may not currently be compatible with today’s broadband connections.

While it’s encouraging Chairman Wheeler is taking the plunge when it comes to the IP Transition, in reality it’s just one of the major issues the FCC will face under his watch. As our Co-Chairman Bruce Mehlman argued in December, outdated regulations could make many of the FCC’s work difficult:

At the FCC, Wheeler inherits a regulatory regime designed decades ago for an earlier era. Voice and video services are regulated under separate provisions of the Communications Act of 1934 (Title II and Title VI, respectively) based on assumptions of a permanent monopoly and massive barriers to entry. The Act and its subsequent amendments fundamentally fail to acknowledge the competitive alternatives created by the technological and marketplace convergence of the broadband age. Today’s FCC-enforced regulatory framework was designed for a world without Netflix Inc., Skype Communications, Google Inc., or iPhones — a world without the Internet. Thus, the agency remains stuck in the past, distinguishing among companies based on the technology they use and their legacy status under the Act. Consumers make no such distinctions.

That Chairman Wheeler and the Commissioners at the FCC are already rolling up their sleeves for the IP Transition should be applauded. But it’s just one of many issues the Commission needs to dive into in the next 12 months.