Comcast’s Very Scary PSTN Filing

February 14, 2013 , , , ,

I’ve been sorting through the various filings at the FCC in
the Phone Network to IP transition docket. I single out the 7-page filing by
as the filing that scares the absolute bejeebers out of me.

Why? Because everyone else – no matter what their financial
interest or political alignment – paid lip service to the idea that we ought to
have at least some kind of
regulation. Whether it’s a general nod to a “minimal and light touch regulatory
regime” or a specific shopping list, the vast majority of commenters recognized
that when you have something as big, complicated and utterly essential to
people’s lives as the phone system, you need some kind of basic backstop for
people to feel comfortable and to address problems that will invariably come

Even AT&T has made it utterly clear that it does not see
the future of phone service as a regulation-free
. Even staunch free market conservatives such as TechFreedom and
Free State
acknowledge that, as a practical matter, there is going to need
to be some set of rules – even if
they hope to keep these rules to what they regard as the barest minimum

Comcast, and Comcast alone, suggests otherwise. Comcast
alone thinks we can manage the phone system as the Libertarian Nirvana. This
smacks either of unbelievable hubris (“we’re so big everyone will have to deal
with us – what could go wrong?) or an incredible sense of market power (“we’re
so big everyone will have to deal with us – heh heh heh”). Either way, this
sends chills down my spine, because both signal loud and clear that Comcast – one
of the largest providers of residential phone service in the United States, the
largest residential broadband provider, and the single most powerful entity in
U.S. telecom policy – simply doesn’t get it when it comes to the future of the
phone system.

The thing that everyone else recognizes, and Comcast
apparently still doesn’t, is that this has to work for everyone, including places Comcast doesn’t serve and doesn’t want
to serve. It’s sad that Smalltown America doesn’t have broadband, unless they
can find a convenient McDonalds
or Starbucks

Without broadband, these places miss out on our digital
future. But if their phone connection stops working, they crash and burn now. We depend on the phone for 9-1-1 access, for human contact,
for essentials of commerce so deeply embedded in our economy that we don’t even
think about the possibility of it going wrong. And because this is a network,
what gets screwed up elsewhere will eventually get screwed up for Comcast.

The expectation in the phone system is that it is
fundamentally reliable, and that the thousands upon thousands of transactions
and agreements take place against a background of regulation and
well-established precedent. Comcast apparently believes you can totally upend
that system and have it work just fine – at least for Comcast. 

We Already Have

Unfortunately, we already have problems. Last week, the FCC
released a Notice
of Proposed Rulemaking on Rural Call Completion
. Odds are good that if you
are not one of the small percentage of Americans impacted by this issue, you
have never heard of the “rural call completion problem.”

To provide the short version – as a result of the IP
transition, the phone network is starting to unravel at the edges. Calls from
urban areas to rural areas are increasingly not going through. Somewhere in the
routing of IP packets and translation of this to the traditional TDM-telephone
, enough latency and packet loss slips in so that calls stop

The FCC thought it knew the cause of the problem, something
called ‘least cost routing,’ and addressed it
in 2012
. But it turned out that didn’t solve the problem and the FCC discovered
it had no friggin’ idea why the phone
system was starting to unravel at the edges, or how to stop it.

The FCC responded, rather sensibly and unanimously, by
proposing reporting requirements that would allow the FCC to trace how calls
get routed and figure out the problem. The FCC also made it clear that it would
order providers to make sure calls go through to rural areas, and that the most
onerous reporting requirements would phase out as phone service to rural areas
became more reliable again. This proposal got a 5-0 vote, with even the
Republican Commissioners noting that making sure that calls go through
everywhere in the country is absolutely at the core of the FCC’s responsibility.

In the world that Comcast envisions, however, the FCC would
do absolutely nothing – because it would not have any authority to deal with
the rural call completion problem. Not because Comcast is necessarily causing
the problem, or because Comcast hates rural people. Heck, all things being
equal, I’m sure Comcast would love to see rural folks get all their calls. But
it’s not Comcast’s problem, so Comcast  doesn’t really care (certainly not enough to
incur any additional expense or acknowledge any FCC authority). Comcast’s
footprint is entirely urban/suburban. Sure, some small percentage of Comcast
customers get frustrated when they can’t call a bed & breakfast in a small
town in Vermont or can’t call home to Smalltown, TX (population 150) on
Mother’s Day. But that is such a tiny portion of their overall call volume that
Comcast doesn’t even notice.

By contrast, actually keeping records on call routing is a
very big deal to Comcast. It’s not really the money and inconvenience (although
obviously Comcast would rather not spend the money or be bothered so it can
complete 5-10 calls to Smalltown a month). Comcast’s big worry is that this
means regulating voice-over-IP, which uses Internet protocols, and therefore
such a regulation is perilously close to – gasp! – regulating the internet! Imagine
if we blew away the magic IP pixie dust that repels regulators and made IP just
one more technology for moving voice around? From Comcast’s perspective, that
cannot be good. Ever.

So as between making sure folks in rural America get
reliable phone service versus acknowledging the FCC needs to retain some
authority over the IP-phone network, the rational Comcast reaction is: “Sorry
rural America, we regard you as acceptable collateral damage to keep us
regulation free.”

Nor does this end at rural America. The problem is (assuming
we don’t care about rural America), this is a network. The problems are going
to continue to proliferate. By the time even Comcast is willing to admit that
something might go wrong, we will have the telecom equivalent of the subprime
loan meltdown. Frankly, I’d rather avoid that – but I understand why Comcast
thinks it’s worth the risk.

Why Do We Care What
Comcast Thinks?

So if Comcast is the lone, whacky outsider, why do we care
what Comcast thinks, especially at this early stage?

Let me start with why I personally find this so scary. My
nightmare scenario is Comcast decides it won’t interconnect with someone unless
it gets paid what it thinks access to its 10 million voice subscribers is worth
– because that’s how things are done in the cable world. But this isn’t the
cable world, where Comcast holding up Viacom over carriage rights can mean I
miss The Daily Show for a while.

If Comcast holds up Frontier or AT&T Wireless, it means
millions of people can’t call home, can’t call their businesses, and
potentially can’t call 9-1-1. That’s not an inconvenience, that is a disaster.

Comcast needs to acknowledge that we need some kind of
oversight so that phone calls to rural America go through, consumers can still
count on their phone calls staying private, and the network bloody well works reliably and consistently.

Because whether it’s merely hubris or an actual intent to
exploit its market power, the sad truth is that Comcast is the one company big
enough to totally crash the U.S. communication networks through unilateral
action of its own. Comcast is not simply too big to fail, it’s in a special
regulatory category all its own called “too big to be allowed to screw up.”

The fact that Comcast can blithely start a proceeding of
this magnitude and importance by essentially saying “we’re so big we’ll always
be better off with no rules” is probably the best argument for making sure the
FCC has the authority to deal with the inevitable disaster this kind of
arrogance causes.

About Harold Feld

Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” a guide to what government can do to preserve competition and empower individual users in the huge swath of our economy now referred to as “Big Tech.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described this book as, “[...] a tour de force of the issues raised by the digital economy and internet capitalism.” For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Court of Appeals. Feld also writes “Tales of the Sausage Factory,” a progressive blog on media and telecom policy. In 2007, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised him and his blog for “[doing] a lot of great work helping people understand how FCC decisions affect people and communities on the ground.”