Five Fundamentals for the Phone Network, Part 1: Service to All Americans

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The debate around the technological transition of our phone system to an IP-based network is now well underway at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and among state and local regulators across the country. Public Knowledge has argued that we must guide this transition according to five fundamental principles: service to all Americans, interconnection and competition, consumer protection, network reliability, and public safety. These principles lie at the heart of the reliability, efficiency, and consumer-friendly aspects of the phone network that we often take for granted.

This post is going to focus on the first principle I listed: service to all Americans. First and foremost, the benefits of the phone network must reach all Americans – regardless of “race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.” In the U.S., we have long held to the conviction that the phone network should reach everyone.

The U.S. can’t become the first industrialized nation to retreat from the goal of making basic voice service available to 100% of our population. Even if we haven’t met this goal yet, it is crucial that our actual goal continues to be complete coverage for everyone in the country. Users depend on the phone network to call for help in emergencies, conduct business, and communicate with their loved ones. It is simply a service that is so important to the fabric of our commerce and culture that we cannot now turn back from the goal of making sure every potential user in the country has access to the network.

Part of committing to service for all Americans is committing to overcome the obstacles that some users face in accessing phone service. If you live in a rural area, we will require phone carriers to build out to you. If you can’t afford phone service, we require carriers to offer reasonable prices and/or we subsidize your rates. If you have a physical disability that interferes with communications, we make sure you have access to technologies that let you meaningfully use the phone network to communicate.

The importance of this principle is thrown into relief during the current network transition because it’s unclear how the FCC will be able to apply its current policies to the managed VoIP services that will result from the technological upgrade of the network. Thus far, the FCC has asserted authority over VoIP providers that are interconnected to the phone network for issues like universal service contributions by saying that its authority over VoIP is ancillary to its authority over the traditional public switched phone network. This raises the serious question of what will happen to the FCC’s ancillary authority over VoIP when the older TDM-based infrastructure no longer exists.

How the FCC should respond to this question is beyond the scope of this post, but for now it is enough to say that it is crucial that, as the discussion about the upgrade of the phone network continues, service to all Americans continues to be one of our top priorities. The technology of the network may be changing, but the need for basic service has not changed, so we must continue to find the best ways to serve that need.

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