Switching out the switch: new FCC chief will focus on going all IP

Nov 21, 2013

On the face of it this appears to be a fairly straight-forward and long-overdue bit of forklift upgrading - who could possibly be against modernising the voice network in principle?

As Wheeler says in his blogthe process to clear the way for “IP transition” actually followed a request from AT&T and others, and the research is under way, started by Wheeler’s predecessor. IP runs everything else on the network, it’s time to set it to work over the final drop (or words to that effect). All sorts of benefits will acrue and what could possibly go wrong?

In fact it’s going to be an interesting process. Wheeler sets out his plan to initiate “a diverse set of experiments” which will begin next year to make sure all the angles in the proposed change had been covered.

But the real points at issue here, of course, are strategic and competitive. Complex layers of rules and legislation have buried POTS under a suffocating blanket and part of the reason that nothing much has been done about it both in the US and further afield, is that it looks too difficult.

For incumbents there are some good reasons to keep it that way. With POTS still sort of mandated as a sort of gold standard (for some reason) for quality of service it can be easier to retain long-term customers against competitive challenges from voice over IP providers - underpinning the quality argument is the fact that many nations mandate it for emergency services.

But over the years the advantages of incumbency have been overridden by the costs of maintaining the network and the historical legacy of providing universal service, hence the AT&T request for a change.

But at the same time, that presupposition of universal service is important too. There are worries about universal public service if what we used to call the local loop was just opened up to IP-based voice competition without careful counter-measures and monitoring. So public interest groups will be watching closely on the basis that anything AT&T badly wants to sell to the FCC and the public should have its tyres kicked and its odometer closely inspected before anybody thinks about buying it.

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