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From growing the economy by helping small businesses stay connected to customers, to allowing families to stay in touch, the phone system has made universal communication possible. The phone system is a vital public utility that has and should continue to serve us all. The phone system has been incredibly successful - connecting to nearly every American, allowing callers to connect to anyone on any network across the country, and providing access to critical communications services even during power outages. The laws and regulations governing the network have helped guarantee that the network works for everyone. As technology changes, it is important that our communications system remains a successful, universal service for consumers.
The largest telephone companies in the United States are currently upgrading the technology that delivers phone service. Existing copper lines are being replaced with fiber or wireless networks that use Internet Protocol technology. These upgrades to the national network are referred to as the “technology transitions” by the Federal Communications Commission.
The new technologies have the potential to provide better, faster, and cheaper phone service. As technology develops, this is an exciting and inevitable advancement in telecommunications. However, in order to ensure that people continue to enjoy the benefits the telephone network has afforded, the process must be implemented properly. There needs to be effective trials that don’t leave communities vulnerable, like the trials conducted in New York and New Jersey did. Policies that establish consumer protections, further competition, and encourage provider accountability must be part of the conversation about changes in the telephone network.
Timeline of National Network Upgrade Oversight
The FCC adopted a bipartisan set of fundamental values to guide the transition in 2014, which was based directly on Public Knowledge’s Five Fundamental Values paper, published the previous year. The four basic principles the Commission selected to guide the upgrade were universal access, competition, consumer protection, and public safety.
The FCC next adopted a set of rules for “copper loop retirement” in 2015 in order to make sure that people received advance notice that their copper lines would be replaced. This included what that might mean for the public, such as no back-up power in a blackout, and certain legacy devices like medical monitors and security systems not working. The 2015 Order also set rules so that competitors and businesses that rely on the old infrastructure and copper lines would have comparable access to the new digital infrastructure.
In July 2016, the Commission adopted rules for phasing out the legacy telephone network and moving forward with the upgrade. These rules included outreach and education requirements, as well as a technical checklist based on a report submitted by Public Knowledge in 2014. You can learn more about the significance of this final FCC Tech Transitions Order here.
The FCC, under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, dismantled these protections in November 2017. This baffling vote will widen the digital divide and cause severe consequences for rural Americans. Learn more about the November decision here, and continue to follow us for updates.
Public Knowledge is working to ensure that amidst the upgrade, the telephone network continues to uphold the following five fundamental principles:
- Service to All Americans – Telephone and broadband service are tools that allow Americans to participate fully in society. For this reason, everyone should be able to access these essential services.
- Public Safety – It is crucial that our communications networks are built to guarantee Americans can reach emergency services during the times they need it most.
- Competition and Interconnection – We must foster a competitive marketplace for communications services and networks that work together to provide the best experience for consumers.
- Consumer Protection – Competition does not guarantee consumer protection. Americans rely on a safety net of regulations that provide adequate protection when they communicate with one another.
- Network Reliability – New networks must continue to offer the reliability the phone network has afforded to Americans, regardless of technology used.
To learn more, check out the following:
Public Knowledge produced a series of five blog posts answering questions about the upgrade in August 2015.
Harold Feld wrote a blog post for the final Technology Transitions Order passed by the FCC, explaining the significance of the FCC rules and the connections to universal broadband.
We produced a white paper for PKThinks entitled Five Fundamentals of the Phone Transiton, which has been widely adopted. We also recently published a white paper on the upgrade entitled Universal Service in an All-IP World.
Harold Feld was featured on The Kojo Nnamadi Show to discuss the future of the phone service.
We also published a toolkit for understanding the phone network transition in December 2012 entitled What’s the Hangup.
We produced educational one-pagers on the following topics:
- The lessons of the transition attempt in Fire Island, NY
- The impact of the transition on rural communities
- The importance of effective trials during the transition
- Section 214, which ensures consistent and reliable communications services
- The impact of the transition on small businesses
- The three aspects of the FCC transition trials
- A background on Verizon's Voice Link service
Here are the PK experts on this issue: