Consumer Outreach Crucial to Transition To New Phone Network, Experts Tell FCC

The Telecommunications Law Resource Center is the most comprehensive reference and news platform for communications law, covering broadcasting, cable, broadband, telephony and wireless;...

By Paul Barbagallo  

Properly educating consumers about transitioning the public-switched telephone network to an all-fiber internet protocol network will be top priority for the Federal Communications Commission in the years ahead, several experts told the agency Dec. 6.

The transition expected in 2017 or 2018 reflects the transformative power of IP networks: Voice service, once the only service provided over the public-switched telephone network, is now but one of many services offered over the combined PSTN and IP networks, including video service.

“This is not the first technical transition, but what we've learned from the past is that there are always surprises,” said Harold Feld, legal director for the public-interest group Public Knowledge, during a panel discussion held by the agency Dec. 6.

Feld noted the digital television transition of 2009, during which the FCC called upon groups and organizations to educate consumers at the local level about what to expect.

“The FCC is just going to have to be very creative as we move forward,” he said. “We're never going to catch everything.”

Driven by Marketplace.

Feld sounded a note of optimism that the transition process has already begun, driven largely by the marketplace.

According a recent report by the research firm Technology Futures, the cost per year to maintain a copper telephone line stands at about $52, up from $43 in 2003, mainly due to the declining number of wire lines.

The FCC estimates that 19 percent of Americans now subscribe to an interconnected voice-over internet protocol service—an IP phone service that interconnects with the PSTN. Another 30 percent have “cut the cord” and now rely only on a wireless phone.

“There is already an incentive in the marketplace to be thinking about how to deal with the issue of capability of the networks and backwards capability of devices,” Feld said.

But to Feld, the real question may be whether policymakers should keep the nation's wired telecommunications network an “open, general purpose network,” like the PSTN has been.

Loss of PSTN Possible.

“Will all networks shift to closed networks?” Feld said. “It would be a shame to lose this quality of openness of the PSTN … through an absence of mind or a failure to consider these questions in a timely fashion.”

Matthew Gerst, counsel for external and state affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association, said policymakers and industry stakeholders must take into account how the transition will affect consumers, particularly Americans with disabilities.

Gerst said the move from the PSTN to an IP network will be a “sea change” for those citizens.

“There's always going to be reluctance to move to that newer model,” Gerst said. “This a communications tool. It's not a new road or something like that. But this is in some case their lifeline. Their concerns are valid, but need to be addressed through education.”

Venkatesh Basapur, executive director at Telcordia Technologies, said that after the transition, consumers will have a greater responsibility to manage their “edge” devices.

“In the PSTN world, devices were dumbed down,” Basapur said. “They were plug-in play options. In the [IP] network of today, there are three or four more devices in the home.”

Basapur said this could be confusing for consumers: “Who do you call when you have problems with a device?”

While the transition is still years away, the FCC has begun holding workshops to discuss the more complex issues. The agency is expected to hold another workshop later this month.