Tech Transitions: Will the New Network Be Good Enough?

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Over the coming weeks, we will feature a series of blog posts about the tech transitions. You can read the first three posts of the series here. In our fourth post below, Meredith Whipple explains what needs to be done to make sure that during the tech transitions, the new services are adequate substitutes for the old services they are replacing.

In last week’s post from the Tech Transitions series, Meredith Filak Rose explained why your provider can’t just cut off your service during the tech transitions. When providers are planning on cutting off service, they need to file a discontinuance notice with the Federal Communications Commission and receive approval. And then, of course, notify the public, which we will get to in our next post.

For those of you just tuning into our Tech Transitions Series, phone and broadband providers are currently transitioning legacy communications networks in a variety of technological ways: from copper to fiber, Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) Protocol to Internet Protocol (IP), and increasingly, to wireless networks. This process is commonly referred to as the “tech transitions,” and you can learn more on our Tech Transitions issue page here.

However, when a provider replaces your network, it needs to be comparable to the service you had before, and there needs to be a system in place to make sure that happens. This is why the FCC requires a discontinuance notice from providers, which is part of Section 214(A) of the Telecommunications Act.

Public Knowledge has consistently urged the Commission to establish metrics to compare the services that carriers are discontinuing with the replacement services. Without ensuring that new services are actually substitutes for the services being phased out, there is a risk that entire communities could lose critical functionality in their communications network.

Furthermore, the consumer and public safety dangers posed by a poorly managed tech transition fall disproportionately upon rural, low-income, and coastal communities. These same communities are typically the most vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, depend most heavily on existing copper networks, and are the least informed about the tech transitions. Additionally, they have limited resources to file complaints about failed services.

The Commission agreed that criteria needs to be established to evaluate what constitutes as an adequate substitute service for consumers, as well as criteria for approving whether a service can be discontinued in the first place. It is currently accepting comments from the public to answer these questions. Public Knowledge has suggested the following criteria:

  • Network capacity under stress
  • Call quality
  • Device interoperability
  • Service and support for users with disabilities
  • System availability
  • Service to 9-1-1 emergency entities
  • Cybersecurity
  • Call persistence
  • Call functionality
  • Wireless coverage

This is simply a starting point for the FCC, and we support the establishment of clear, engineering-based metrics to determine whether new services are indeed comparable to the old services that the provider proposes to retire. But this will take time, and we need to have an evaluation system in place now. In the interim, we have urged the Federal Communications Commission to use six months of real-time performance metrics—three months before discontinuance of service and three months after—to ensure functional substitutability.

Unsurprisingly, many industry members are not happy about too many requirements for discontinuance approval. For example, CenturyLink recently proposed that the FCC should grant a discontinuance notice simply if the provider certifies that there is “competition.” This is clearly not adequate. Does “competition” tell us that voice quality is consistent, that 9-1-1 can be reached, or that there is adequate backup power with a new service? Of course not.

We are happy to see the FCC is working to establish metrics to ensure new services are comparable to the old services they are replacing during the tech transitions. But we urge them to carefully consider how essential it is for our phone network to continue to work just as well as it did before, and to make sure incidents like the one in Fire Island aren’t repeated. This is a fundamental step in making sure our phone network continues to uphold the five fundamentals of universal service, public safety, competition, consumer protection, and reliability.

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