IP Transition Hearing Emphasizes Consumer Protections and Title II

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Last week, Public Knowledge’s Senior Staff Attorney Jodie Griffin testified before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet in Washington. In a hearing entitled “Preserving Public Safety and Network Reliability in the IP Transition,” Jodie drove home the necessity of the fundamental values of the phone network carrying over to new technologies, as the IP transition moves forwards and underlying technologies continue to evolve in new and exciting directions.

Jodie emphasized that as an ever-increasing number of Americans rely on Internet Protocol–based (IP) phone services, often on fiber or wireless networks, ensuring that the safety expectations of consumers continue to be met is vital to the health of the American people. Copper landlines have historically provided crucial contact to emergency services in times of crisis, including power outages. Because phones reliant on copper lines draw on power from a central office when a home loses electricity, they often provide contact to police, firefighters, medical personnel, and loved ones in harm’s way when the power has gone out. If something goes wrong in this system, local, state, and federal authorities step in to protect the phone network as if our lives depend on it – because they do.

100 million Americans still rely on traditional copper wire landlines; 85 million in said subset also have a mobile phone or other voice product. This can be interpreted one of two ways: either (a) political theorists have had it wrong all, and humans are fundamentally irrational to the point that they enjoy writing two checks, or (b) traditional phone services offer users in the marketplace a service they value.

And yet, reports have surfaced indicating consumers are being forced off of legacy copper systems by providers, which heightens the need for more hardened protections in IP-based systems to ensure public safety. Ensuring that new technologies protect basic values with similar robustness to historic systems is critical, as is preventing rural and disadvantaged citizens from falling through the gaps during the transition process. As Senator Cory Booker highlighted in reference to the loss of services on Fire Island, NY and in Mantoloking, NJ following Hurricane Sandy, transitions have the potential to quite significantly impact consumers in ways not evident at the outset.

Additionally, as highlighted in the hearing, the implications of the phone network transition do not stop at the borders of copper and fiber infrastructure. For example, Senator Ed Markey pointed out during the hearing that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) current efforts to implement new net neutrality rules will have important implications for a future all-IP phone network. If certain functions like call completion and basic service require reclassifying IP-based service as a Title II “telecommunications service,” the FCC’s current rules do not avail themselves of that protection. Particularly after the DC Circuit’s recent net neutrality decision, there are real ambiguities as to how much the FCC can rely on other sources of authority to serve the network compact. Regardless of the underlying technology, the FCC should continue to ensure it

As stated in the opening statement of Senator Markey, who as a Representative was one of the chief authors of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, “the principle definition of the Act was that everything was going to be technology-neutral.” Guarantees of safety and reliability were not made to hinge on, or to expire with, shifts in infrastructure. Public Knowledge and Senator Markey agreed during the hearing that the Commission’s most effective path towards ensuring call connections are successful and historic values are maintained is through Title II reclassification.

A copy of the written testimony can be found here.

A video recording of the hearing can be found here.

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