AT&T announced plans on Wednesday to invest $14 billion in an expansion of its wireless and fiber broadband infrastructure over the next three years. The company said the buildout would expand its high-speed 4G wireless network to reach 300 million people and expand high-speed wireline Internet and video services.
The move was accompanied by a petition by AT&T to the Federal Communications Commission to initiate a proceeding on the transition of the telecommunications industry to Internet Protocol-based services. Essentially, AT&T is hoping for a waiver to develop and test all-IP networks in certain locales, and phasing out its legacy services and the extensive regulatory obligations that go with them.
"The FCC did this with the [digital television] transition in [Wilmington, N.C.], and converted them early," said Bob Quinn, who heads AT&T's federal regulatory group. "This is the same concept. It gives us context to tee up policy issues."
For example, under the waiver, AT&T could potentially meet its obligations to offer Lifeline service - a discount phone service - using only its wireless service. The waiver would also give AT&T the opportunity to build IP infrastructure without having to maintain legacy networks at the same time.
Part of the goal would be to generate information on how to best manage the shift to an all-IP environment. Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently called for a task force to look at how to update telecom regulation for fiber.
"AT&T believes that this regulatory experiment will show that conventional public-utility-style regulation is no longer necessary or appropriate in the emerging all-IP ecosystem," the company wrote in the filing, which quotes liberally from the FCC's National Broadband Plan, and includes references to both the Democratic and Republican party platforms.
Objections are likely to come from rural and regional telecoms, cable companies, and others who piggyback on the systems of large telecoms to provide services. Former Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., spokesman for the Broadband Coalition, which represents some smaller, competitive providers, is worried that AT&T is using its infrastructure buildout, "as an excuse to rewrite the telecom rules to its advantage."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that, "AT&T's announcement of billions of dollars in new investment in wired and wireless broadband networks is proof positive that the climate for investment and innovation in the U.S. communications sector is healthy."
Larry Strickling, who heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the Commerce Department said, "AT&T's commitment to further expand its broadband footprint is a promising step that, together with other investments of private capital, will help achieve" the goal of having universal high-speed broadband access.
In their comments, Genachowski and Strickling noted that they would be considering the possible impact of the AT&T plan on the competitive landscape, as well as it effect on consumers.
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