Public-Interest Groups Eye Policy Implications of FCC's IP Transition Order

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Jan. 29 --The Federal Communications Commission plans to vote on a framework for a proposed series of trials that would gauge the impact of Internet Protocol based networks on U.S. consumers, at its Jan. 30 open meeting.

The pilot programs will help the agency determine whether there is a need to assert its regulatory authority over IP-based networks. Public interest groups said in interviews Jan. 29 that they are looking to see what specific principles on which the trials will be focused.

For years, telecommunications carriers like AT&T Inc., and Verizon Communications Inc. have sought to retire their traditional landline telephone equipment based on time division multiplexing (TDM) in favor of IP networks. The transition will have a tremendous impact on how the nation's networks connect its citizens to businesses, public safety officials and each other.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler previously called upon the commission to consider how companies preserve marketplace competition and protect the public interest after they transition to IP networks. The FCC will consider “an order for immediate action” related to AT&T's pending proposal to coordinate regional tests at wireline facilities that would replace the company's TDM facilities with IP-based alternatives, Wheeler said in a Nov. 19 blog post. AT&T's 2012 petition urged the FCC to open a proceeding “to facilitate the 'telephone' industry's continued transition from legacy transmission platforms and services to new services based fully on the Internet Protocol.”

AT&T executives recently urged the commission to consider a two-step process whereby the company would move its customers to IP-based services in geographically circumscribed areas, during a Jan. 22 meeting with Wheeler. The company sought FCC approval to implement IP-based and wireless services in addition to traditional TDM-based services on a voluntary basis in the trial locations. Following the implementation of new IP-based services, the company will seek FCC approval to end interstate TDM-based services for those customers. AT&T's filings on the matter also urged the FCC adopt a certain date by which the company's default interconnection obligation would switch over from TDM to IP.

Critics Cry Foul

Critics of the proposal said AT&T and other telecommunications companies are merely using the IP transition as a vehicle to evade FCC regulatory obligations tied to their old technologies. Wireline carriers are currently bound by Communications Act regulations and fees related to interconnection requirements, interstate service tariffs, universal service support mechanisms, rate obligations and public safety obligations, among others. Some public interest groups have urged the commission to ensure that federal consumer and public safety protections are applied to in IP networks and services.

Jennifer Yeh, a policy counsel for Free Press, told Bloomberg BNA that she hopes the FCC will provide greater clarity about what policy framework it will adopt to govern the transition.

“Specifically, we're hoping that the commission will assert its authority over the IP-based network,” she said. “Although the technology underlying our public telecommunications network is evolving, the commission needs to continue to fulfill its obligation to promote competition, interconnection, innovation and protection of consumers. To do so, the FCC needs to clarify that it has authority over the public telecommunications network, notwithstanding the change in technology.”

Angie Kronenberg, a chief advocate and general counsel at COMPTEL, said she's watching to see whether the FCC's order will ensure that an IP transition benefits all Americans and promotes competition. “We hope that any action taken with regard to the experiments will not hold up the commission's consideration of important legal and policy issues that have been pending and must be resolved in order for the transition to enable all providers to successfully serve consumers and businesses across the nation.”

Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, said he is optimistic that the FCC will adopt the four guiding principles previously outlined by Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel: public safety, universal service, competition and consumer protection. “We are extremely happy about that,” Feld told Bloomberg BNA in an interview.

Public Knowledge said that consumers should not be “treated like guinea pigs” as a part of the process and the FCC should encourage a voluntary transition, rather than a mandatory one, according to recent FCC filings. The group urged the commission to develop a checklist for carriers to demonstrate whether or not replacing TDM with IP-based services will constitute an impairment of service under Section 214(a) of the 1934 Communications Act.

IP Transition Framework

 

Wheeler's blog said the upcoming IP transition order should guide the commission on how best to:

• “obtain comment on and begin a diverse set of experiments that will allow the commission and the public to observe the impact on consumers and businesses of such transitions;

• collect data that will supplement the lessons learned from the experiments; and

• initiate a process for commission consideration of legal, policy, and technical issues that would not neatly fit within the experiments, with a game plan for efficiently managing the various adjudications and rulemakings.”

 

Ultimately the commission is seeking “a measurement capability that establishes a set of metrics that allow you to draw conclusions,” Wheeler said during a Jan. 28 panel at the State of the Net conference. “And that is how we are going to be structuring these. The trials will be run by various carriers and what we're going to be saying to them is 'God bless, go at it, use your best judgment and we want to know the following kinds of things to help in the measurement of what is really going on out there.' ”

The trials have to ensure that consumers are protected from harm, but the networks must also interconnect, Wheeler said. Former AT&T President “Theodore Vail built AT&T by leveraging off interconnection. AT&T ran the long-distance lines and Vail said, 'You either sell out to me or you don't get on.' We are not going to let that history happen again,” Wheeler said. “That is not what the future of the Internet is all about.”

Wheeler's comments indicate the commission's approach will be more substantive than a proof of concept trial, Feld told Bloomberg BNA. “The FCC has a legal responsibility to determine whether shutting off the existing phone service will 'impair' service to the local community or is otherwise contrary to the public interest,” Feld said. “To do that, you need some kind of technical standards that show how the new service works compared to the old.”

Feld said Wheeler's comments about Vail are important because it indicates the chairman is cognizant of the policy implications inherent in the proposed trials. “The question of whether or not the FCC needs to regulate interconnection is one of the hottest policy issues the FCC has to decide,” Feld said. “Wheeler's statement acknowledges that what happens on interconnection has a profound impact on whether the market remains competitive in the future.”

“Wheeler did not actually commit to doing anything specific,” Feld said. “But the fact that he acknowledged the danger that AT&T could, in the future, leverage unregulated control of interconnection to undermine competition is important because it shows the need to, at a minimum, maintain sufficient FCC authority over interconnection in case something anticompetitive did happen.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com


For more information about the FCC meeting, visit http://www.fcc.gov/events/open-commission-meeting-january-2014.