Posts by Harold Feld:
The Net Neutrality Decision And The IP Transition. What Happens When You Cant Make Phone Service WorJanuary 16, 2014
As I noted in my first post-Verizon v. FCC blog post, the Net Neutrality decision both dramatically expanded and dramatically limited the FCC’s authority. This has a large number of immediate implications for the FCC’s ability to conduct its work. While this ripples across just about every area of FCC jurisdiction, it has its most immediate impact on the transition of the phone system to all IP.
At a glance, the biggest losers are cable operators (except Comcast), CLECs, and anyone else that wants mandatory interconnection or cares about call completion. That means resolving the rural call completion problem just became harder, since VOIP providers cannot, now, be subject to the duty to complete calls. The most recent FCC Order, which imposes reporting requirements is still OK. But the original declaratory ruling requiring IP-based providers to actually complete calls is probably a dead letter.
On the other hand, the decision potentially empowers the state Public Utility Commissions (“PUCs”), or gives the FCC power to delegate to state PUCs, the ability to override the laws passed in 27 states that prohibit any regulation of IP based services, and to override limits on municipal broadband.
Sometimes the conventional wisdom turns out to be correct. As we observed after the oral argument in September, the Court seemed likely to approve the FCC’s general assertion of authority over broadband providers under one provision of the Communications Act, while reversing the no blocking and non-discrimination rules – the actual important part of Network Neutrality – as contradicting other statutory language. As it turned out, that’s what happened.
Yesterday we recapped the transition of the phone network thus far and touched on what to expect. Today we discuss the technical trials and what happens next.
For those unfamiliar with the terminology, a “wire center” is the place where all the wires for telecommunications service in a specific area come together. That’s not just all the residential subscribers on the AT&T system. It’s the place where AT&T exchanges traffic with the other providers (such as the local cable operator and whoever offers cell service), the 9-1-1 access point, and the source of “special access” circuits for enterprise customers and other carriers.
The argument about trials has unfortunately broken down largely into two sides. AT&T and its supporters, who want to see AT&T convert a wire center under terms defined by AT&T, and everyone else, who thinks we don’t need trials at all. Public Knowledge supports well constructed trials that actually further the debate. We’ve written at length on our problems with the current AT&T proposal and what we’d like to see in a real set of technical trials.
Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler’s blog post announcing his intent to have the FCC issue an Order on the process to transition the phone system in January kicks things into high gear.
I noted previously that Wheeler started out strong, with good opening remarks and a staff prepared to start working immediately on the major issues. But even I was surprised at his recent blog post, announcing his intent to get an Order out on the transition of the phone system by January.
We Pause To Recap Our Story So Far.
For those just joining us, the “Future of the Phone System,” refers to the massive and wide ranging project of phasing out traditional phone technology for Internet protocol (IP) based systems and wireless systems. This sometimes gets called the “PSTN Transition” (PSTN stands for “public switched telephone network,” a fancy way of saying things with phone numbers that use the phone system) or the “IP Transition” (because we are moving the phone system to IP).
This transition has been going on quietly in the background for years. About a year ago, AT&T kicked it up a notch by asking the FCC to “begin a dialog” on how to phase out the old phone technology and to rethink what rules we ought to have for the phone network going forward. AT&T also suggested doing two “technical trials,” by which it meant ‘please let us start playing with this without any regulatory oversight – it’ll be awesome cool!’ This promptly caused a major freak out in telecom land, with folks on one side accusing AT&T of trying to get out of its regulatory responsibilities, rip off consumers, crush competition, etc., and others saying that wholesale elimination of all those pesky legacy rules was just the thing to unleash the engines of innovation, encourage investment, bring us to the dawn of a new golden age, etc.
Back when former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced his departure, we at Public Knowledge had a few things we said we wanted to see in his replacement. While it’s obviously way too early to judge incoming Chairman Tom Wheeler, it’s worth noting that the initial signs look favorable – and give us some clues as to where Wheeler will want to go in his first few months.
Let me first start out by once again applauding former Chairwoman (now back to Commissioner) Clyburn for what everyone agrees was an astoundingly productive tenure as Chair. Over the course of six months, Clyburn tackled such topics as clarifying consumer privacy rights around mobile phone data, protecting the families of the incarcerated from rip-off phone rates, scheduling the FCC’s first major spectrum auction since 2008, and a number of other important issues.
It’s like getting Al Capone for tax evasion. The CIA and AT&T figured out how to get around legal restrictions on giving the CIA access to domestic phone call information, but in doing so they violated a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that protects you against telemarketing.
According to this story in the New York Times, the CIA paid AT&T to provide them with information on calls passing through its international telephone system. Because federal law prevents the CIA from spying inside the United States, the CIA could not legally get info on calls terminating in the U.S. But, of course, calls from suspected foreign terrorists (aka “anyone outside the United States”) that terminate in the United States are the most interesting to the CIA.
After facing massive customer pushback and sharp regulatory scrutiny on its plan to force Fire Island residents to take Voice Link as a substitute for the copper network destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, Verizon agrees to bring FIOS to Fire Island.
Back in May, Verizon announced it would replace the copper phone network on Fire Island destroyed by Hurricane Sandy with their new “Voice Link” service. From the beginning,we expressed grave concerns with forcing storm victims to take an unproven technology in place of the traditional copper-line phone and DSL broadband they had before Sandy struck. Worse, Verizon warned Voice Link callers might not reliably reach 9-1-1, that fax machines, medical devices, and security systems might not work with Voice Link, and that customers would have to switch to much higher-priced mobile broadband plans to keep their Internet access.
Today, Verizon and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had an oral argument before the D.C. Circuit Court debating the network neutrality rules. The argument took place before Judge Rogers, Judge Tatel, and Senior Judge Silberman (“senior” means “technically retired but still hearing cases when I feel like it”). You can listen to the 2+ hour oral argument I sat through this morning here.