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Continuing our explanation of Public Knowledge’s Five Fundamentals to guide the phone network upgrade to an IP-based system, this week we’ll elaborate on the third principle: protecting all consumers.
The need for consumer protection builds upon PK’s previous two principles for the PSTN transition. The first principle states that everyone has the right to be a consumer of the phone network and that phone carriers have a duty to bring service to all Americans. The second principle promotes competition and interconnection between carriers, meaning that anyone should be able to place a call to another person, regardless of which phone company they use. Interconnection and other competition policies lead to a healthy, consumer-friendly market for phone service.
Yet competition between carriers does not always guarantee all aspects of consumer protection. PK’s third principle ensures that all consumers are protected from potential harm dealt to them by their phone service providers, by enforcing privacy principles, truth-in-billing, and safety from predatory practices.
It is important that the consumer protections ensured in current communications law are updated to reflect the IP-based infrastructure of the future. Today, the law explicitly protects consumers’ confidential information, and the FCC has relied on its authority over the traditional phone network to extend this protection to VoIP (voice over internet protocol) services. But the FCC has jurisdiction over other safeguards like “slamming rules” and “cramming rules” that they have yet to apply to VoIP providers.
“Slamming rules” prevent telephone carriers from switching their subscribers’ service without permission, and “cramming rules” prevent carriers from adding charges to a customer’s phone bill without their permission. Both of these protections apply to traditional telephone users, but not to users of IP-based phone services. As managed VoIP replaces the old telephone network infrastructure, the FCC needs to consistently treat the two technologies as equally deserving of consumer protection. There can be no picking and choosing when it comes to consumer privacy and truth-in-billing.
The telephone network is undergoing a necessary and inevitable upgrade to an IP-based system. As part of this transition, The FCC must ensure that consumers continue to be protected from predatory practices, regardless of which technology their phone company uses. The fundamental principle of consumer protection, along with the other four principles of service to all Americans, interconnection and competition, network reliability, and public safety will guide the transition of our phone system into a future that serves the technological needs of the people better than ever before.