Op-eds

American innovation has led to massive adoption of cutting-edge communications and entertainment technologies. Functionalities and services once wondrous and new are now commonplace. A step back reveals how far and how fast we’ve come. In 2000, television changed forever as TiVO introduced us to time shifting, the ability for consumers to record and watch TV programs at the scheduled hour of their choosing. That same year, our Internet and telephone experience was enhanced as cable modems began to take hold in American homes. The following year, we saw the first iPod, and how we buy, store, and listen to music has never been the same. The iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) gave birth to a revolution in the use of mobile data.

Unseen but ever-present wired and wireless broadband networks provide the foundation for the high-quality video, voice and Internet services that Americans have welcomed with historic enthusiasm, as they have been adopted by in the home and mobile users at a stunning pace.

During the past decade, under our feet and above our heads, the nation’s broadband service providers have invested tens of billions of dollars to bring high-speed wired and wireless connections to our homes and businesses and in the process have reshaped almost everything about how we communicate. Because of these investments, we constantly have available a seamless stream of voice, data, and video on demand.

Today’s digital networks offer boundless opportunity—boosting economic growth and job creation; through remote monitoring and telemedicine, bringing world-class medical care to remote communities and easing the burden of chronic conditions; improving education for students of all ages by delivering advanced coursework, college classes, and even online degrees through distance-learning programs; maintaining constant communications with business associates, family and friends; and providing entertainment and real-time news, weather, and sports information.

This enhanced connectivity also enables civic empowerment—especially for groups who haven’t always been heard—enabling them to communicate more easily with elected officials and to organize and advocate on their own behalf.

Achieving the next level of broadband investment and enabling faster connections, more capable services and deeper Internet penetration in hard-to-serve areas will be facilitated by policy changes by the FCC. With the commission’s newly arrived leadership, these needed changes should be at the forefront of the agency’s agenda.

While communications of all kinds have rapidly moved to the Internet and broadband networks, the aging copper-wire, circuit-switched telephone network remains in place, using the same technology Alexander Graham Bell pioneered. It offers plain old telephone service (POTS), and Americans are fleeing it in droves at an ever-accelerating pace. Only 5 percent of Americans use the old network as their exclusive communications medium. Another 38 percent use it in combination with wireless service, and most Americans use wireless communications only or rely on a combination of wireless and a wired alternative to the telephone network, such as cable modem service.

We stand at an inflection point where the rules that were sensible in the last century for a heavily regulated circuit-switched telephone monopoly are no longer sensible in today’s competitive communications landscape dominated by broadband and a multiplicity of Internet-enabled services. The requirement of current law that telephone companies spend billions annually maintaining a single-function, aging network that consumers no longer prefer is impeding the next level of broadband investment. Planning and delivering a rapid transition to an all-broadband communications environment is the greatest challenge that the new FCC chairman faces.

A Change Requiring New Policy

In its time, the phone network was a culture-changing technical marvel that introduced nationwide communication through copper wire, erasing geography and reliably enabling Americans to dial business contacts, friends, family, and neighbors anytime, anywhere.

During the early and mid-20th century, access to telephones grew rapidly as government aided and promoted a monopoly to accelerate network build-out to reach all Americans. As telephone service became nearly ubiquitous in the latter half of the last century, technological and market advancements created the possibility for alternative satellite, wireless, and landline communications for businesses and consumers.

Realizing the potential benefits that the array of digital technologies could provide, the U.S. government ended the phone monopoly, and with passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, began to chart a course toward more robust competition and entrepreneurship in the nation’s communications marketplace. Consumers were first offered choice in the long distance telephone market. Then new providers, such as cable companies, built out broadband networks to offer competitive wired residential telephone and Internet services. The door was opened for telephone companies to offer cable TV service, and digital networks were developed that could accommodate it.

As the reliability of wireless communications increased and access to broadband services has expanded, American consumers at work and in the home have embraced them with a passion. Modern broadband communications systems now link us to the Internet; move information, data and video at lightning speed; and carry our voice “phone” calls, too. These are the networks consumers prefer, and the transition away from the antiquated telephone network is occurring with remarkable speed. As society now treasures its smartphones and tablet devices, streaming videos, GPS guidance systems, and other electronic wonders, we forget that little more than a decade ago personal communications was still largely about POTS. Current law still assumes that most communications are delivered by the POTS network.

Existing regulations were created in a world where heavily regulated phone companies provided copper wire voice service, lightly-regulated cable companies delivered TV, and wireless companies offered services deemed too unreliable to compete with wired telephone service. In fact, these rules still compel telephone companies to invest nearly $13.5 billion each year to maintain and run the old copper phone system as if it were still the nation’s core communications system used by almost all.

Too Much Investment to Maintain Old Technology

As the number of telephone company subscribers on POTS sharply falls, the per-subscriber cost of maintaining the old network has become unsustainable. According to a recent study, America’s telephone companies made more than $154 billion in capital expenditures from 2006 to 2011. Surprisingly, the majority of that investment was dedicated to maintaining the declining telephone network, even though today only about one-third of Americans still use it at all, and only 5 percent use it exclusively. Every dollar that is spent maintaining a voice-only network that consumers are fleeing is a dollar not invested in the modern multifunction broadband networks that consumers prefer. Every dollar telephone companies spend on an ancient, declining, and little used technology is a dollar not spent developing the more capable broadband infrastructures through which phone companies can become stronger competitors in the offering of voice, video, and data with largely unregulated cable companies. That’s an important goal because when competition is fair and fierce, consumers ultimately win big with competitive pricing and greater choices to fit their personal needs.

Ancient rules and old ways of thinking are undermining innovation, damaging competition, forcing billions of dollars into misdirected capital investment, and slowing our national progress. Maintaining the status quo for the antiquated telephone network—either by decision or inaction—is a costly anachronism. Requiring phone companies to operate voice-only telephone networks while they are building out new fiber-optic broadband networks makes as much sense as requiring a hitching post in front of every store, forcing bus companies to maintain streetcar tracks, or insisting on backup electric fans in every air-conditioned building.

The IP Transition: Six Principles to Consider

The FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan is instructive. It observes that the regulations requiring telephone companies to maintain the old phone network “siphon[s] investments from new networks and services” and is “not sustainable.” The report also declares that the transition to “broadband is the greatest infrastructure challenge of the 21st century.” The FCC’s Technological Advisory Council recommended that the transition and sunset of the POTS network be completed by 2018.

That’s not very far away, and meeting that schedule will bring its own unique challenges. Consumers must be protected, and certain populations are at risk of being disadvantaged. Of particular concern are those who are not yet taking advantage of the opportunities created by new digital technologies. For example, late adopters—largely older and less affluent consumers, many of whom reside in hard-to-serve rural areas, who have not yet joined the broadband era—may be at greater risk unless we complete the transition in a carefully planned and orderly way. The transition to 21st century communications networks must serve every American. But that result is not pre-ordained; it will require hard work.

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.

FCC Should Begin Trials Now

Consumer interests are paramount. These core challenges must be met before the book is closed on the antiquated POTS network. Contrary to the claims of some, the post-transition environment will not be regulation free. Indeed, regulation will be necessary to assure consumer protection, but just as networks are modernizing, the regulatory landscape must be modernized as well.

What’s needed is smart regulation appropriate to protect consumers and public safety, promote competition and support universal service, while also encouraging sustained private investment and innovation in America’s next-generation communications networks.

The upgrade and modernization effort will require thought and planning. That’s why we must start now while the existing phone system is available as a “safety net” backup for any potential glitch or surprise that might arise during the upgrade to a new and modern system. No one is proposing a “flash cut” in which the telephone network disappears overnight. This process will, in fact, probably take half a decade to complete.

To take the first step, the FCC should rely on a time-tested method: demonstration projects. Conducting demonstration trials in carefully selected markets in which existing POTS users are rapidly moved to Internet protocol-based networks will provide a controlled environment for an accelerated transition with the existing telephone network still in place as a safety net.

This approach gives consumers an assurance that if any unexpected problems causing consumer disruptions arise, service can continue over the telephone network while technical and service issues are resolved. Through the demonstration projects, we can determine what is likely to go wrong and have solutions in place prior to a broader national transition.

The FCC has a recent successful precedent for taking precisely this step. In the nation’s transition from analog to digital television broadcasting, the FCC conducted a similar test. Leading up to the digital TV conversion, some warned of potential negative consequences for consumers. The warnings were similar to those we are hearing about the transition from POTS to modern networks. In particular, the articulated fear was that switching to digital television broadcasts would harm consumers, particularly the elderly and less technically savvy viewers who decide to keep their older analog television sets but would experience difficulty installing the required converter box to receive and convert the new digital broadcasts. The circumstance of rural and lower income viewers was a particular focus. To address these concerns, the FCC launched a demonstration project in Wilmington, N.C., an area with a wide diversity of viewers, including those with low incomes, the elderly, and viewers living in both metropolitan and rural areas.

The FCC’s Wilmington demonstration project proved a success. It provided clear evidence that on the day analog broadcasts ended, viewers were prepared. There were almost no complaints. Analog television users across the Wilmington region had successfully installed digital-to- analog converter boxes. The trial inspired confidence that the national transition could proceed uneventfully, and on national transition day, very few problems were encountered.

Employing the same model, the FCC should now move quickly to authorize closely supervised demonstration projects in selected markets, perhaps one urban and one rural, where people quickly shift from existing telephone networks to modern broadband networks. The demonstration projects offer a test bed to guarantee that core consumer values will be protected, to learn what may go wrong in a controlled rapid transition and to devise solutions for problems that in fact arise prior to a broader national transition.

While the attraction of broadband networks has propelled a POTS-to-broadband transition that is now well advanced, we owe it to ourselves to plan and complete it on the schedule that the FCC’s Advisory Council recommended. Applying the knowledge gained through demonstration projects we can accelerate the POTS phase-out and realize the benefits of greater network functionality, a broader array of services for consumers and the economic efficiencies that come from devoting investment to the networks of the future rather than the network of the past.

Public-Private Partnership Needed for New Road Map

For the moment we have the luxury of time to conduct demonstration projects, but an additional sense of urgency for action is now apparent. The current telephone network is supported by antiquated equipment, and as consumers have continued their ongoing migration to the new networks, equipment providers either no longer manufacture or have significantly scaled back production of the TDM (time-division multiplexing)-based equipment necessary to maintain and operate the POTS network. As fewer replacement parts become available, maintaining the phone network grows dramatically more expensive, further skewing the ratio between investment in old and new technologies, with the ever-escalating costs being passed on to consumers. All Americans stand to benefit from shifting investment to modern networks that offer consumers service as least as good as what they enjoy today, as well as the greater functionality that broadband networks can offer.

A public-private partnership among all stakeholders—consumers, telecom companies, suppliers, and regulators—will be needed to establish the rules of the road for the new network. These stakeholders can embrace key principles—recently outlined by the leading consumer advocacy organization Public Knowledge—service for all, competition, reliability, consumer protection, and public safety.

Simply providing access to new technology while protecting core consumer values, however, isn’t the whole job. We also must boost adoption rates, educating every American about what the transition means, how it will affect them and how by using broadband they can improve opportunities for themselves and their families. We can’t afford to leave any American in the dark about the value of broadband; we can’t leave anyone behind.

So the real questions surrounding the IP transition are not whether, but when; not if, but how. Bipartisan support exists in Congress for the transition itself and for the basic principles that should be at its core, including consumer protection, universal service, network reliability, competition and public safety. Now is the time for all stakeholders to work together, starting with the demonstration projects, to ensure that the transition’s rapid final phase proceeds as smoothly as possible.

New FCC Chairman Embraces Need for Quick Action

The Internet’s evolution has brought us to another critical juncture in communications policy as we consider how to complete the transition from the bygone era of plain old telephone service to the broadband future of the 21st century. It’s a critical transition, given broadband’s increasingly dominant role in every part of our economy, as well as its ability to improve lives and advance economic growth. It’s also something that just about every stakeholder, including the FCC, regards as inevitable.

In 2011, the Technological Advisory Council led by now-FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, noted that “[t]he FCC should take steps to prepare for the inevitable transition” from the old network and in fact “take steps to expedite the transition, with a target date of 2018,” including the need to “re-align regulatory requirements to emerging technologies.”

The recommendation reflected vision and foresight then, and provides an ambitious but achievable agenda now. When it’s achieved, Americans will have access to reliable networks designed specifically for broadband voice, video, and Internet services, rather than antiquated networks that support phones wired to the wall. Every app, every smartphone and tablet, every desktop computer will smoothly connect consumers to the online experience of their choice—telemedicine services for better health, virtual classrooms for lifetime learning, their legislators’ offices for civic engagement, a job opportunity, a business contact, a sporting event, a movie, friends and family across town or on the other side of the world. That’s the goal—delivering the services consumers want. Upgrading and modernizing our 20th century telephone networks will get us there.

This goal now appears closer on the horizon than ever before. In one of his first official acts, Chairman Wheeler has made clear the need to speed the “Fourth Network Revolution,” recognizing how “new networks catalyze innovation, investment, ideas and ingenuity.” He stated that “the time to act starts now” and proposed a timetable for FCC action in January 2014 on how to “begin a diverse set of experiments that will allow the commission and the public to observe the impact on consumers and businesses of the [IP transition and proposed demonstration projects].” In setting this course, the new chairman has jump-started the process and appears ready to steer the FCC toward addressing the key policy, technical, and consumer issues necessary to bring 21st century high-speed broadband to more Americans.

In our land of opportunity and innovation, we’re a place of relentless creativity. At the core of our success is an entrepreneurial culture powered by private sector investment. In that American tradition, it’s incumbent on us to ensure that the benefits and opportunities of next-generation networks and services become widespread and available to all. The POTS-to-broadband transition will free the needed investment. The next steps for us to take are now clear.

Reproduced with Permission from The Telecommunications Law Resource Center, Copyright 2013, The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033)

Originally published at Bloomberg BNA