Moving Forward on The Phone Transition: Trials and Conclusion

November 26, 2013

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.

Technical Trials:

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

Wheeler’s blog post
indicates that he intends for the FCC to authorize “experiments,” and focuses
on numerous details that such experiments would need to cover – such as
reporting requirements and consumer notice. I take from this that Wheeler would
prefer to start with something less broad than “lets convert an entire wire
center and see what happens.” At the same time, there are definitely going to
be technical experiments of some kind, so everyone who insists on the “no
trials no way no how” position might want to reconsider that and start thinking
about what limits they feel they need to prevent AT&T from creating ‘facts
on the ground’ that would pre-judge the transition.

Also of note, Wheeler makes it clear he plans to run the
experiments concurrent with digging into the legal and policy questions. Trials
are not going to be a delaying tactic either to delay essential policy
decisions while AT&T creates facts on the ground, or for those who don’t
want to see the IP Transition move forward.

Other Policy
Specifics Up For Grabs.
Wheeler’s blog post lists the other policy
specifics that remain up for grabs. Most notably the question of Commission
authority. I read this as a challenge to those who want the Commission to avoid
classifying voice-over-IP (VOIP) as a Title II telecommunications service. “Look,”
this blog post seems to me to be saying. “We’re going to have rules to make
these values a reality. Maybe not the same rules we have now, but some kind of
rules. That means we need a clear basis for authority. If you don’t want Title
II, you need to come up with something else that will work.”

Also up for grabs are what, specifically, the new rules will
be. Wheeler very carefully does not tip his hand on this question – which is of
course what everyone in D.C. really wants to talk about. Instead, Wheeler believes
the Commission Order in January will “set forth the
best process
that the Commission can initiate so that, in parallel, it
may decide the legal and policy questions raised by this network revolution.”
(Emphasis added.)

In other words, those expecting to see things
like “will we have mandatory interconnection for IP-based calls” decided in
January are likely to be disappointed. The January Order will likely queue up
important questions like these, with a method for how to decide them. It may
have some tentative conclusions and proposed rules, but I believe – reading the
tea leaves here — it will focus heavily on exploring the right overall

Which, as we at PK have repeatedly urged, is
the right way to go. The FCC needs to kick this up to a Commission level,
assert control, and start moving us down the path of phasing out the old
technology. But the process is sufficiently large and complicated that any
attempt to grapple with it seriously quickly gets bogged down in a hundred
details of equal urgency. Worse, as we have already seen with problems like rural call
and caller i.d.
, unexpected problems will keep coming up
throughout the transition.

So at this stage, we need a road map for how we
plan to transition the phone system rather than simply a bunch of random
decisions that we hope work out for the best. That doesn’t mean endless study
and contemplation. Even in the January Order, I would expect to see some
decisions on how to move forward. But don’t expect to see a master document
that resolves all the outstanding issues.

What Happens Between Now And the January FCC Meeting?

Well, I expect a fair amount of lobbying of the FCC –
particularly after the December 12 task force presentation. We will also
undoubtedly see members of Congress starting to weigh in on this – probably
focusing on specific hot-button issues.

The big unknowns are the states, the local governments,
federal agencies and Indian Tribes. So far, to the extent these constituencies
have weighed in at all, it has teneded to be at a high level policy concern
(see this
most recent letter
from the Small Business Administration Office of
Advocacy, for example). Wheeler notes in his blog post that the FCC needs to
develop outreach strategies to these branches of government for them to
consider their needs as consumers of telecommunications services. How that
plays out remains to be seen, since no one has really focused on it until now.


After a long slow start, things on the phone transition appear
to be picking up speed. As I’ve noted
since first discussing this topic
, the broad nature of this process and the
lack of any central proceeding makes it difficult for people to focus on the
decisions that need to be made. Hopefully, that will now change.

About Harold Feld

Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” (Public Knowledge & Roosevelt Institute 2019) a guide on 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. Circuit 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.”