FCC Sets the Ground Rules for Shutting Down the Phone System, Sets the Stage for Universal Broadband

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The FCC voted to pass the Order. You can read our press release on the vote here

The two Orders the FCC will vote on today probably have more impact on the future of our communications infrastructure than the Title II reclassification of broadband, but like many technical topics, it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

In particular, no one notices the incredibly vaguely named item “Technology Transitions,” which covers the conclusion of a four-year proceeding on how to shut down the legacy phone system and move all our national communications platforms to a mix of digital platforms. That does not mean we’re getting rid of copper and going to all fiber (a common misconception). In fact, in many communities, the old copper lines might get pulled out and replaced with wireless technologies (what we call wire-to-wireless transition). Those who still remember when Verizon tried this after Superstorm Sandy on Fire Island will understand why so many of us wanted to make sure we have an organized transition with quality control and federal oversight.

What Does This Mean for You?

If you are not one of the 60 million or so people (mostly rural, poor, or elderly) who still depend on the traditional copper line telephone, you may wonder what this has to do with your life. The short answer is: the old phone system still provides the backbone of our communications system of all the shiny digital things we take for granted. The old copper line phone system is also the workhorse of most ATMs, retail cash registers, and thousands of other things we use every day. Why? Because the old copper line network has been around forever. It’s an open system everyone can – by law – plug into and no one ever imagined would go away.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario: you have a child in elementary school, that school has a fire alarm, and that fire alarm has a copper wire that plugs into the part of the traditional phone network specially designed to connect directly to the alarm system at the fire station. Even if your school updated its phones to digital, and every teacher and administrator has a cell phone, that old technology on the fire alarm hasn’t changed. It’s still a legacy copper line that runs into the legacy phone system to reach the fire department.

Sometime in the next 5-10 years, the phone company that controls that network is going to come along and rip out all the guts of the system that connects the elementary school and the fire alarm and replace it with a nice, shiny new digital system that will have lots of fancy features and greater capacity.

That’s great! Phone companies like Verizon and AT&T are going to invest tens of billions of dollars over the next 5-10 years upgrading their equipment and so forth. This creates lots of jobs and potentially brings lots of cool stuff to your community. Yay! We love it when we upgrade our infrastructure!

But there’s bad news. No one remembered to deal with the elementary school fire alarm. Everyone was excited about the new infrastructure. Everyone said, “I have a cell phone, so I don’t see why I need to worry about the old copper line network.” Everyone said, “Regulation is bad and state and federal regulators shouldn’t even THINK about getting in the way of this awesome project!” And then we forgot to hook up the elementary school fire alarm.

And it’s a real shame, because it wasn’t a hard problem to solve. It’s just that no one thought about it. Or your parent’s medical alert system. Or whether TTY and other technologies for the hearing impaired would still work. So now, instead of having a little device that plugs your 1970s elementary school fire alarm into the bright shiny digital phone network, the school teacher evacuating your child and 40 other kids is also frantically calling 9-1-1 on her cell phone to get to the fire department.

Happily, this scenario did not happen. But it is exactly the type of unintended consequence we need to consider at this stage.

How the FCC Put Values First, and What Today’s FCC Order Will Do

The FCC adopted a bipartisan set of fundamental values to guide the transition in 2014, which was based directly on Public Knowledge’s Five Fundamental Values paper, published the previous year. The four basic principles the Commission selected to guide the transition are universal access, competition, consumer protection, and public safety.

The FCC next adopted a set of rules for “copper loop retirement” in 2015 in order to make sure that people got advance notice that their copper lines would be replaced. This included what that might mean for the public, such as no back-up power in a blackout, and certain legacy devices like medical monitors and security systems not working. The 2015 Order also set rules so that competitors and businesses that rely on the old infrastructure and copper lines will have comparable access to the new digital infrastructure.

Today, the FCC adopts the last in a series of orders that will make it possible for the phase-out of the legacy phone system to proceed in an orderly fashion that provides enough oversight to make sure everything will actually work, but still allows phone companies the certainty and flexibility they need to upgrade their networks in a rational and cost-effective way. Ideally, today’s FCC Order will push both the phone companies and the local communities to treat this as a collaborative process rather than a contentious process.

The FCC Order will adopt the technical “checklist” based on the criteria and engineering report submitted by Public Knowledge in 2014, and supported by organizations like the Communications Workers of America, AARP, The Utility Reform Network, and other consumer protection groups. That means making sure we don’t forget the elementary school fire alarm, or that computerized traffic control system the city set up in 1982, or how the city will budget to replace its several hundred fax machines that, yes, lots of people still use even if you scan and email everything, because faxes are cheap and they don’t get hacked. It means giving people time to replace their old devices that depend on the legacy telephone system that no one thought would ever go away with something (perhaps even something better) that works with the new communications infrastructure.

The Order will also include an outreach and education requirement, so that the phone company must let everyone know about the upgrade of the infrastructure, what the impacts are, and how it will work with the community to make the transition as seamless as possible. That will make it possible for the community to work with the phone company to figure out how to fit changes in the technology in the local government budget cycle, in the local business budget cycle, and with time for everyone in the community to understand that the change is coming and what it will mean to them.

At the same time, the FCC makes clear that keeping copper forever is not an option. We really do need to upgrade our communications infrastructure so it can support all the nice shiny stuff we increasingly depend on for just about every aspect of our lives. Customers have a right to enjoy the benefits of the upgrade, but no one has a right to keep our basic communications infrastructure frozen forever.

The Triumph of Values and Why That Matters to our Communications Future

I am truly hopeful that the procedures the FCC sets in place in this Order will make it possible to make this transition a collaborative process between the private sector and the local community – meaning everyone, regardless of race, income level, or any other division between have and have nots — rather than a confrontational process. The rules the FCC are adopting make it easy to move forward, while providing enough supervision as a check against the phone companies cutting corners or having competitors try to stall the process for their own private gain. It protects those who depend on traditional copper line systems for life saving services, and makes the transition away from these services easier for consumers.

Finally, although this is the least tangible, it is the most important. Until the Tech Transition, the idea of the public interest in communications infrastructure was dying. Market triumphalism was about to sweep away over 225 years of fundamental values that have governed our nation’s communications networks since the Constitution gave Congress the power to make postal roads. With this Order, we breathe new life into these public interest embers.

As we wrestle with how to secure our broadband future for everyone, we will start with a strong foundation that builds on our universal phone system. It took close to 100 years to get over 96% penetration of the old phone system. It was a massive project to try to overcome the systemic exclusion of non-white communities from when the system was deployed. It took a host of federal and state laws to get build-out of working and reliable infrastructure in rural areas where the costs of maintaining the networks is highest and the rate of return lowest. While the FCC’s Order addressing the phase-out of this amazing legacy phone system does not guarantee answers to how to do this for broadband, it does make sure that we are not starting from scratch.

The bones of our 21st century communications infrastructure will still be shaped by the same underlying values that made our 20th Century infrastructure the envy of the world. That alone makes the last four years since the process started worth it.

 

Image credit: Flickr user amayzun

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