It may sound like something remarkable happened in the House of Representatives on Wednesday morning when the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held its hearing on “The Evolution of Wired Communications Networks.”
You heard telco giant AT&T agree with advocacy group Public Knowledge about the principles that should guide the transition as technologies advance to carry voice and other communications services over broadband. Those principles include providing universal service, fostering competition, protecting consumers and ensuring reliability during emergencies.
You can’t find fault with such worthy objectives. But emphasizing the “telephone transition” is the wrong call. While the technology used to send voice over the public network is changing, we should focus on that network rather than the services it delivers.
We need to preserve this vital infrastructure so that voice and other services can be carried over it. To ensure the reliability of voice service, Internet access, and other applications delivered over broadband, the Federal Communications Commission must guarantee that the network is universally available, affordable, reliable and open to innovators.
Talk is cheap. Agreement on principles won’t be good enough if there’s no public oversight of broadband networks to make sure these principles apply fairly to everyone. Without that oversight, AT&T can just find a loophole and opt out of the bargain any time it wants by pointing to the changed technology.
Unfortunately, network providers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast have succeeded in confusing many policymakers on this issue. These companies point to the wealth of content available on the Internet to obscure the fact that a few incumbents control almost all of the pipes we use to connect with one another and access that information.
AT&T is right when it notes that people have more options today for voice, including over-the-top services from Apple, Google, or Skype, or voice and video capabilities found in instant messaging, websites and video games. But these aren’t options for people who can't even connect to broadband in the first place.
Many of the organizations that have filed comments in the ongoing FCC proceeding on this topic, including the AARP, the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, competitive telecom providers, and public interest groups like Free Press, recognize this trap.
Technology upgrades change how the public telecommunications system works, but they don’t get rid of our need for such a system. The promise of the Internet will be fulfilled only when it's open and affordable to all.
We can’t trust network providers to serve the public interest in an unregulated and uncompetitive market for broadband. And we can’t hope to settle on fundamental values first, saving for some other day the important discussion about the laws to implement those principles.
The FCC already has the statute it needs to ensure the network serves everyone — including those who rely on traditional phone service. The agency needs to use that authority to keep network providers honest.
The FCC should apply to the network the principles of universal service, competition, consumer protection and reliability during emergencies. And the FCC should ensure that AT&T and other providers live up to these principles — and deliver essential communications services to all communities in the United States.
Wood is the policy director for Free Press.