COMMENTARY

Why We Need to Move Ahead on IP

We can’t regulate modern technologies the way we did Ma Bell

(Top) Grace E. Earle, standing, chief operator, and five other telephone operators work at the White House switchboard located on the second floor of the west wing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28, 1955. (AP Photo) (Bottom) File - In this Saturday Aug. 13, 2011 file photo, Nick Sabatasso checks his cell phone while waiting for a BART train at San Francisco's Civic Center station. With a protest looming Monday over the fatal shooting by a transit officer, Bay Area Rapid Transit officials are deciding whether to shut down subway cell phone service a second time to thwart anarchists who retaliated by hacking and posting personal information on thousands of the agencyís passengers. San Francisco and BART police are preparing for an evening rush-hour demonstration over the recent shooting of a man wielding a knife. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)
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Ajit Pa
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Ajit Pa
April 24, 2013, 11:33 a.m.

The an­cient Greek thinker Her­ac­litus be­lieved that “the only con­stant is change.”  He ob­vi­ously didn’t have mod­ern tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions net­works in mind, but his philo­sophy fully ap­plies to those net­works non­ethe­less.

Not too long ago, we lived in a world dom­in­ated by mono­pol­ies.  To make a phone call, the only op­tion was Ma Bell, which sent the call over its cop­per-wire net­work.  Some tele­phone com­pan­ies used old-fash­ioned switch­boards to dir­ect calls to the right des­tin­a­tion.  Oth­ers used massive ma­chines called switches to do the job.  The whole tele­phone net­work was de­signed to provide one thing: voice ser­vice.

Today?  Plain old tele­phone ser­vice is go­ing the way of the horse buggy and the ice­box.  Only one third of Amer­ic­an house­holds get voice ser­vice through the tra­di­tion­al cop­per net­work, and that num­ber is drop­ping each year.  About one third of house­holds now use an In­ter­net-based voice ser­vice (such as those offered by cable com­pan­ies, Google, Skype, and Von­age), while an­oth­er third have “cut the cord” al­to­geth­er and only use wire­less devices.  A phone call is quickly be­com­ing just an­oth­er di­git­al com­mod­ity, rid­ing on broad­band con­nec­tions just like a Web video or email.

This cross-plat­form com­pet­i­tion is lead­ing com­pan­ies — for­cing them, one could ar­gue — to make massive cap­it­al in­vest­ments.  Broad­band net­work op­er­at­ors spent $66 bil­lion in 2011 to bring faster, more re­li­able ser­vice to mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans, such as by de­ploy­ing op­tic­al fiber — ba­sic­ally, strands of glass of that can carry light­waves con­tain­ing com­mu­nic­a­tions sig­nals.  These in­vest­ments spur eco­nom­ic growth and cre­ate jobs across the coun­try.  One es­tim­ate sug­gests that every bil­lion dol­lars in­ves­ted by the private sec­tor on fiber de­ploy­ment cre­ates 15,000 to 20,000 new jobs.

In short, Amer­ica is in the midst of a tech­no­lo­gic­al re­volu­tion, what some call the IP Trans­ition (“IP” stands for the In­ter­net Pro­tocol, which is the tech­nic­al found­a­tion for all these changes).  IP-based net­works are dif­fer­ent from the cop­per-based net­works of yes­teryear in a fun­da­ment­al way:  They were not de­signed for voice ser­vice alone.  In­stead, IP-based tech­no­lo­gies break down every kind of com­mu­nic­a­tion (voice, video, e-mail and more) in­to di­git­al bits and trans­port those bits more ef­fi­ciently and cheaply than ever be­fore.

Des­pite these vast changes in the com­mu­nic­a­tions mar­ket­place, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion hasn’t caught up.  We still view the world as if con­sumers were at Ma Bell’s mercy, re­ly­ing on cop­per lines to get ba­sic voice ser­vice.  As a res­ult, we have a lot of ob­sol­ete rules on our books.  (Just two months ago, the FCC fi­nally re­pealed a rule first ad­op­ted by its Tele­graph Di­vi­sion dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion!)  These old rules aren’t just harm­lessly yel­low­ing with age.  They are af­firm­at­ively dis­cour­aging com­pan­ies from in­vest­ing in next-gen­er­a­tion net­works.

For ex­ample, one rule re­quires pro­viders to keep in­vest­ing in their voice-only net­works, even if they would prefer to up­grade to con­sumer-friendly IP-based net­works.  That makes about as much sense as re­quir­ing Ford to keep mak­ing horse-drawn car­riages, Gen­er­al Elec­tric ice­boxes, or Apple the IIe.  Would con­sumers be bet­ter off if the gov­ern­ment had done those things?  Of course not.   Every dol­lar a com­pany has to spend main­tain­ing its fad­ing cop­per plant is one less dol­lar it can spend on new­er, bet­ter, more re­si­li­ent fiber that will make our eco­nomy more pro­duct­ive and im­prove our qual­ity of life.

So when it comes to com­mu­nic­a­tions tech­no­logy (or any oth­er area for that mat­ter), fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions shouldn’t dis­cour­age in­nov­a­tion.  They have to keep up with the times. 

How do we achieve this goal when it comes to IP net­works?  I be­lieve that the time has come for the FCC to im­ple­ment an All-IP Pi­lot Pro­gram.  The concept is simple: al­low tele­phone com­pan­ies to turn off old net­works and test the switch to IP in a few dis­crete loc­a­tions.  A pi­lot pro­gram would let com­pan­ies iron out any tech­nic­al wrinkles in the IP Trans­ition.  It would test the wa­ters on con­sumer out­reach and edu­ca­tion.  And it would give us in­sight on the ap­proaches that work and those that don’t.

A suc­cess­ful pi­lot pro­gram should be guided by four over­arch­ing prin­ciples.  No com­pany or state should be forced to par­ti­cip­ate.  The test sites should re­flect the di­versity of our na­tion.  No one who has tele­phone ser­vice now should lose it.  And we have to be able to eval­u­ate the pro­gram in or­der to fig­ure out how to make the na­tion­wide trans­ition work well.

Pi­lot pro­grams aren’t any­thing new.  Most suc­cess­ful tech­no­logy com­pan­ies con­duct test­ing be­fore launch­ing a new product.  In 2009, the FCC it­self tested the switch from ana­log to di­git­al tele­vi­sion broad­cast­ing in Wilm­ing­ton, North Car­o­lina be­fore that trans­ition happened across the na­tion.

And an All-IP Pi­lot Pro­gram is not a par­tis­an or ideo­lo­gic­al is­sue.  That’s why the concept has already re­ceived broad sup­port, from the NAACP and League of United Lat­in Amer­ic­an Cit­izens to the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and Amer­ic­an Con­sumer In­sti­tute.  The di­verse roster of sup­port­ers makes clear that the IP Trans­ition will be­ne­fit all Amer­ic­ans.  

Make no mis­take:  The IP Trans­ition is already well un­der­way.  Through mil­lions of in­di­vidu­al de­cisions in the mar­ket­place, Amer­ic­an con­sumers have sent a clear mes­sage about the su­peri­or­ity of IP net­works and ser­vices.  This leaves the FCC with a crit­ic­al choice.  Are we go­ing to re­main con­stant, stand­ing in the way of pro­gress?  Or are we go­ing to em­brace change, help­ing to ush­er in the di­git­al age?  Our coun­try will be bet­ter off if we chart the second course.

Ajit Pai is a Com­mis­sion­er at the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion.

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