The transition from copper-based telephone systems to IP networks in the U.S. could become swept up in political fallout as the FCC figures out how to regulate such networks in ways that will appease the courts.
A switch to IP-based networks has been progressing for years in the U.S., but a January ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit calls into doubt the FCC's authority in several areas, such as prohibiting VoIP providers from degrading service or blocking calls from competing carriers, and requiring them to offer service to all customers who want it.
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And the technological changes are rekindling the debate over whether the FCC as an entity should continue to exist at all, or at the least whether it needs a major transition itself.
"Should the commission have any ongoing role in communications networks, or does somehow, the change in the technology make the FCC obsolete?" said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press, a digital rights group. "We'd say, clearly, it does not. Whatever the technology is, the FCC still has a duty to make sure broadband telecommunications are universally affordable and available and competitive."
The IP transition, combined with the net neutrality ruling, puts several features of the traditional telephone network, long taken for granted by customers, in doubt, said Harold Feld, senior vice president at digital rights group Public Knowledge. After the net neutrality ruling, "the FCC can no longer require VoIP providers to complete phone calls [and] can no longer prohibit VoIP carriers from blocking calls," Feld wrote in a January blog post.
Some telephone customers in rural parts of the U.S. have complained in recent months about dropped calls, and the problem could get worse in an IP transition, Feld said. Public Knowledge, Free Press and some other consumer groups have called on the FCC to reclassify broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service in an effort to restore its regulatory authority, but a move by the FCC to reclassify broadband would trigger a long and contentious battle with carriers.
"Post-IP transition, absent reclassification, the FCC would be unable to ensure that all calls go through when you dial your 10-digit phone number," Feld wrote. "They could -- as they can with net neutrality -- require companies to disclose if they are blocking calls or otherwise 'managing' traffic in a way that degrades rural traffic."
In some ways, the switch from copper to IP, predicted to happen over the next five or six years, should be relatively simple. Most carriers already offer voice-over-IP services, and at some telecom carriers, two-thirds of voice customers have already cut the cord and switched from traditional telephone service to mobile or VoIP service. Some technical issues will come up, including how to transition old phone-based services like school fire alarms and heart monitors, but the IP transition trials are designed to find and fix those issues.