The IP Transition: Not Your Mother’s Rotary Phone

by Jacqueline Clary on March 13, 2013

Black and White Rotary PhoneA typewriter is to a laptop as copper telecom lines are to IP enabled telecom systems.  Right now, we are in an age where we are upgrading from one outdated system to a newer, faster, sleeker one.  This IP transition, the future of the telecom world as we know it, can be boiled down to a few words: speed, functionality, and – for civil rights groups – opportunity.

Consumers are increasingly exercising their purchasing power to demand more from their telecommunications services and devices.

I distinctly remember when free long distance rates were introduced for landline telephones.  My weekly chats with my grandfather abruptly evolved from a quick “Hi, how is the weather?  Have a good week!” to lengthy calls discussing school, activities, and philosophy. Well, maybe not that deep, but the calls were longer and more involved.

Several years ago, my grandfather started questioning all of us about our mobile provider to determine the best plan.  While he still relies primarily on his cell and landline phones to talk to family, many consumers are turning away from voice – particularly landline service delivered from the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) – in favor of mobile, text, email, video-chat, and other IP enabled networks that allow users to access voice as one of many communications options.

As consumers move away from the legacy telephone system, the cost for providers – and the declining number of consumers relying on the legacy system – is steep.  What’s more, regulations that require this continued investment in this limited infrastructure divert investment from more advanced communications systems.  For civil rights advocates and the communities they serve, the transition to IP enabled systems represents an opportunity to encourage robust, affordable broadband adoption to help close the digital divide.

Corporations and policymakers alike have acknowledged the necessity of modernizing policies to facilitate the transition from the circuit-switched network.  The FCC recognized this in its National Broadband Plan:

“Regulations require certain carriers to maintain [Plain Old Television Service] – a requirement that is not sustainable – and lead to investments in assets that could be stranded.  These regulations can have a number of unintended consequences, including siphoning investments away from new networks and services.  The challenge for the country is to ensure that as IP-based services replace circuit-switched services, there is a smooth transition for Americans who use traditional phone service and for the businesses that provide it.”

The Plan continued to explain that in past communications transitions, government policies eased way to a more efficient system.

Consistent with the Plan’s recommendation for the FCC to commence a proceeding to examine the necessary components of such a transition, AT&T, the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, and the US Telecom Association filed petitions to get the conversation started.

Civil rights advocates responded to AT&T’s petition, which urged the Commission to conduct limited trials to determine the most efficient means to complete the transition.  The Joint Commenters support limited market tests with stakeholder participation as the best means to resolve the issues raised by the transition process.  Specifically, the Joint Commenters reasoned, “With minimal consumer disruption, the beta-trails would enable policymakers to choose the best and fastest path of how to migrate consumers from antiquated 20th century ‘voice only’ networks to the networks, services, and applications that will directly benefit the nation’s economy and the African American community in particular.”

The FCC is listening.  The Commission is holding its first technology transition task force workshop next Monday, March 18, between 9:30-4:00PM EDT.

The transformation is already underway, while many questions remain, including important public safety, competition, universal service, and affordability concerns. It is crucial to have an open and transparent public policy dialogue on these issues.

  • Jacqueline Clary

    Jacqueline Clary is the John W. Jones Fellow at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. In this position, she focuses on a variety of policy issues to advance minority participation in the media and telecommunications industries. Ms. Clary earned her B.A. from John Carroll University, her J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law, and is a member of the New York State Bar.

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