How Will the Government Regulate the Phones of the Future?

The FCC is about to study its regulations.

Switchboard operators of the Empire State Building work under the look of their chief, December 1946 in New York. Designed by the firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harman, the Empire State Building was built in 1930. At 449m/1472 ft high (included a 68m/222 ft high television mast added in 1951) it was the tallest building in the world until 1970.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Jan. 30, 2014, midnight

In a few years, the tele­phone may be as out of date as the tele­graph. In­stead, all calls will go over high-speed In­ter­net net­works.

But phone com­pan­ies are sub­ject to a slew of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions in­ten­ded to en­sure re­li­ab­il­ity, pro­mote com­pet­i­tion, and ex­pand ac­cess. Which of those reg­u­la­tions should ap­ply to the net­works of the fu­ture and which should be left be­hind?

That’s the ques­tion that the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is go­ing to try to an­swer. The agency will vote Thursday to move ahead with a set of tri­als to study how it should up­date its reg­u­la­tions to ap­ply in the trans­ition to In­ter­net Pro­tocol, or IP, net­works.

The is­sue may seem ar­cane, but if grandma tries to call 911 on her new In­ter­net phone and the call doesn’t go through, people will no­tice.

Ac­cord­ing to an agency spokes­man, the FCC will de­clare four core val­ues for the trans­ition: pub­lic safety, uni­ver­sal ac­cess, con­sumer pro­tec­tion, and com­pet­i­tion.

“For the last hun­dred years with the tele­phone net­work, we’ve had a set of rules, a set of op­er­at­ing guidelines, a set of ‘this is how I as a con­sumer can ex­pect to in­ter­face with the net­work,’ ” FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er said earli­er this week at State of the Net, an In­ter­net policy con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton.

“As we go to an all-IP net­work, the tech­no­logy has changed, but the ba­sic com­pact con­cepts have not.”

Many In­ter­net call­ing ser­vices like Skype and Von­age already ex­ist. Broad­band In­ter­net net­works can carry traffic more ef­fi­ciently, and the tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions gi­ants are tired of main­tain­ing their old net­works of cop­per lines and out­dated switches.

The FCC’s planned tri­als will not be tech­nic­al ex­per­i­ments.

“We do not need tri­als to fig­ure how to build IP net­works. They work. We know how to do that,” Wheel­er said. “What we do need to do is to un­der­stand what hap­pens when that’s the net­work — that’s everything we’re re­ly­ing on.”

Com­pan­ies that want to par­ti­cip­ate in the FCC’s ex­per­i­ments will have to ap­ply by Feb. 20. The agency will make de­cisions about the loc­a­tions of the tri­als in May. Once the tri­als are un­der­way, the FCC will be­gin col­lect­ing data and study­ing how to ad­just its reg­u­la­tions.

Con­sumer ad­vocacy groups are ur­ging the FCC to en­sure that it ap­plies core reg­u­lat­ory safe­guards to the net­works of the fu­ture.

“We can­not, and should not, de­mand that com­pan­ies keep the same cop­per-based tech­no­lo­gies forever. But we also should not as­sume that the new world will auto­mat­ic­ally be just as good or bet­ter. It can eas­ily be a step back­ward, as well as a step for­ward,” Jod­ie Griffin and Har­old Feld, law­yers for the non­profit group Pub­lic Know­ledge, wrote in a white pa­per last year.

“De­lib­er­ate policy choices were re­spons­ible for cre­at­ing the na­tion­al 911 sys­tem or mak­ing sure that every­one had af­ford­able phone ser­vice. If we make a dif­fer­ent set of choices now, we could eas­ily leave these and oth­er things we as­so­ci­ate with the phone sys­tem be­hind.”

But Re­pub­lic­ans see the FCC’s pro­ceed­ing as an op­por­tun­ity to clear out some of the reg­u­lat­ory un­der­brush that has ac­cu­mu­lated over the last 100 years and is hold­ing back busi­nesses.

Just a few minutes after Wheel­er spoke at the In­ter­net con­fer­ence this week, Sen. John Thune, the top Re­pub­lic­an on the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee, which over­sees the FCC, took the stage to of­fer his own view of how the agency should treat the phones of the fu­ture.

“I hon­estly do not un­der­stand how any­one be­lieves that laws de­signed for Ma Bell in the 1930s are ap­pro­pri­ate for the In­ter­net today,” he said. “While there are fun­da­ment­al goals that need to be pre­served — such as uni­ver­sal ser­vice and pub­lic safety — as poli­cy­makers, we need to be open-minded about how to achieve those goals in the fu­ture without be­ing bound by the stric­tures of the past.”

He poin­ted to seem­ingly need­less FCC reg­u­la­tions, such as re­quir­ing phone com­pan­ies to la­bel, track, and re­port the ex­act loc­a­tion (down to the shelf) of pieces of equip­ment.

Thune ar­gued that the ac­cu­mu­lated bur­dens of such rules “rep­res­ent a sig­ni­fic­ant eco­nom­ic drag that di­verts lim­ited re­sources to law­yers and reg­u­lat­ors and away from provid­ing new products and ser­vices to con­sumers.”

It could be more than a year be­fore the FCC makes any fi­nal de­cisions about how to reg­u­late the new net­works, but the con­sequences could shape how we com­mu­nic­ate for dec­ades to come.

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