Five Fundamentals for the Phone Network, Part 4: Network Reliability

Each week we’ve focused on one of Public Knowledge’s five fundamentals for the PSTN transition to an all-IP (Internet Protocol) phone network. We believe that the principles of service to all Americans, interconnection and competition between carriers, consumer protection, network reliability, and public safety are needed to guide the technological upgrade while keeping the necessities we’ve all come to expect from the phone network. 

Today, let’s talk about one of the most basic principles of the phone upgrade: the network still has to function reliably.

The phone system’s transition away from older TDM-based technology and toward the newer IP-based service is a welcome change. The network’s traditional technology is rapidly becoming obsolete and voice over IP (VoIP) has the potential to offer more efficient, higher quality service. That being said, phone companies absolutely cannot sacrifice network reliability for upgraded technology.  From natural disasters to basic network mechanisms like distributing phone numbers, the phone network must continue to function with the complete reliability we expect today.

Only a few months ago, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the east coast, leaving massive power outages in its wake. As the power grid shut down, many people who lost access to the internet, VoIP, and video services were forced to use neighborhood payphones to call friends and family in the aftermath of the storm. When the traditional phone network no longer exists, we risk losing the safety net we all rely upon.

How reliable the new network will be depends on the policy decisions we make now. The FCC has authority to ensure the reliability of the phone network and will need to guarantee an equal or better level of robustness during and after the transition to an all-IP system.

Just as the upgraded phone network must work reliably in a natural disaster, we should also be assured that it works day to day. The FCC exercises its authority over certain fundamental mechanisms of the phone system, such as distributing phone numbers, which must still function throughout and after the transition. But, the FCC currently bases its authority to administer things like phone numbers on its authority over the traditional phone network, raising the question of what will happen once that infrastructure has been cleared away for newer technology. How will phone numbers work in a world without the traditional PSTN? Which phone service providers will be able to obtain and distribute phone numbers, and from where will they get them? These are critical questions that the FCC must answer as we move away from the familiarity of the PSTN’s older technology.

It is the FCC’s responsibility to ensure that consumers can rely on the phone network every day, rain or shine. There must be a guaranteed minimum level of robustness during and after the transition to an all IP phone system.

The technology behind our digital infrastructure is evolving but the original goal of the phone network remains the same: it needs to work.

Click here to sign the petition supporting a universally affordable, reliable, and available phone system regardless of the underlying technology.

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