Not Mere Legacy Regulations: Preserving the Principles of our Phone Network

We shouldn’t take the reliability of our phone system for granted. Although some characterize the phone system’s current rules as unsuitable for newer technologies, these rules are necessary to make the system work, regardless of the underlying technology.


On Wednesday, the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing on what’s commonly called the IP transition. Basically, as John described on the blog a few weeks ago, newer packet-switched technologies are gradually replacing the traditional technologies behind our phone network. Because this presents an important opportunity to shape the future of our phone network, the Subcommittee invited a panel of communications experts, including our very own Harold Feld, to speak on the government’s role in the transition. 

As Harold discussed in his testimony, the phone network should continue operating smoothly and reliably, regardless of the underlying technology. Deliberate policy choices have ensured the high level of quality we almost take for granted today. Our Five Fundamentals articulate the principles behind policies that have shaped the phone network: service to all Americans, competition and interconnection, consumer protection, network reliability, and public safety. And these same principles should continue guiding our phone network, no matter what technology it runs on.

Some of the members and witnesses present expressed concern that “legacy regulations” hold back the phone network’s evolution to the next generation. They argued that rules designed for an older generation of telephony should not hinder investment in the next generation. Regulations for this new generation of technology should be rooted in the problems of today, they said.

But these are the very rules carefully designed to ensure the reliability of America’s phone network and to protect its consumers. It doesn’t matter that available technology was vastly different when these rules were written; the rules aren’t about what the technology is, but about how that technology is used. Americans continue to have the same expectations of how our phones should operate. For example, we can call friends without worrying what phone network they use, and we expect 9-1-1 to always work during emergencies. In this regard, we actually face the same potential problems with a phone network as yesterday.

The existing regulations convey important principles, so we should not hurriedly and blindly dismiss them. Instead, to ensure that millions of Americans can depend on a reliable phone network every day, we must continue allowing the same principles to guide our phone network. Investment in improving the phone network is good, of course, but it should not come at the cost of eliminating what makes the system great.


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