FCC Chair Moves Forward On The Phone Transition: What To Expect For The Next Few Months.

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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.

The FCC responded to this collective freak out in telecom land in its usual fashion, it formed a task force and took a couple of rounds of public comment.  Then Chairman Genachowski left, putting things pretty much on hold until Wheeler could get confirmed. So for the last six months, setting aside the occasional Congressional hearing and this summer’s “Adventures In Voice Link – Sponsored By Verizon,” everyone in the telecom world dealing with this issue has been arguing the same points back and forth and wondering when the heck something would happen.

Where is PK In All This?

We’ve taken the position that (a) it’s a good thing to upgrade our phone system; (b) we need to make sure that the same social values that made our phone network totally awesome for everyone for the last 100 years guide this transition and form the foundation for whatever new rules and policies we adopt; and, (c) This needs to be an upgrade for everyone, not an upgrade for some and a downgrade for others.

In addition, we need to make sure things do not get screwed up in the transition. As I explained in my testimony last month, there are a lot of little things already going wrong (a problem I refer to as “network neuropathy”). Instead of looking at state and federal oversight of the transition as a negative, people need to recognize that state and federal oversight are what prevent potential disasters like Fire Island from going critical.

O.K., We’re Caught Up. Now What?

Wheeler says he wants some kind of Order for the January 2014 FCC meeting (as yet unscheduled). An “Order” could mean any of the following: a policy statement giving the FCC’s general approach; a solicitation for specific technical trials; a Notice of Inquiry teeing up a bunch of questions; a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; or an actual Report and Order on any of the longstanding pending proceedings that bear on the Transition, such as the “copper loop retirement” proceeding" pending since 2007.

That’s an awful lot of range. So lets try to narrow it down based on what we know.

Smart Politics In The Blog Post: Wheeler salutes each of the Commissioners that predate him and praises something each one has highlighted before. First, Wheeler explicitly acknowledges Commissioner Ajit Pai’s repeated urging to move forward quickly, particularly with authorizing AT&T’s proposed technical trials. At the same time, Wheeler also embraces Commissioner Clyburn’s caution that the FCC needs to move carefully, analyze all the facts, and make sure that vital services to consumers and public safety are not compromised during the transition.

Most importantly, Wheeler explicitly embraces Commissioner Rosenworcel’s 4 Key Values for the IP Transition: “[a]s we develop a new policy framework for IP networks, we must keep in mind the four enduring values that have always informed communications law — public safety, universal access, competition, and consumer protection.” Although we at PK have embraces a “Five Fundamental Values” Framework, we see substantial overlap between our framework and that of Commissioner Rosenworcel’s. Wheeler’s highlighting of these values as critical to his vision of the “Network Compact” that constitutes the rights of users and the responsibilities of network operators.

By highlighting the work done before his arrival, Wheeler makes clear that his decision to move forward rapidly now implies no criticism of his predecessors. Also, by taking something from each Commissioner, he shows his desire to move forward in a collegial manner that will – hopefully – have buy in from a unanimous Commission.

December 12 Preview: First up, Wheeler plans for the Transition Task Force to give a status report at the Open Commission Meeting on December 12. That will provide a great deal of insight into what Wheeler and staff see as the critical issues. We can expect that anything highlighted in the status report will be addressed by the Order in January, and that any questions highlighted by staff as needing answers will be the subject of much lobbying by stakeholders after the meeting.

Stay tuned tomorrow as we discuss the technical trials and what happens next.

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