Put sound policy before technology

Some of the largest service providers would like Congress and the FCC to ignore the fact that technology alone has never overridden sound public interest policy objectives in the communications marketplace, such as consumer protection, competition and universal service.  The transition to IP technology is not unlike other changes to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) that have taken place during the past century.  Years ago, the network went from analog to digital, and then from circuit switched to packet switched.  These technological transitions occurred with minimal regulatory upheaval, because Congress and the FCC recognized the changes did not alter the need to maintain basic rules to promote consumer protection, public safety, network reliability, competition and universal service.  These fundamentals have helped ensure that the primary beneficiaries of communications innovations are consumers.

The fact is that IP technology and the IP transition are not new.  For over a decade competitive wireline and wireless service providers, cable companies and rural providers have been deploying IP technology in their networks to meet customer demand and to deliver services more efficiently and cost effectively.  Our member companies have been leading the way in this technological revolution.  Some were early adopters of VoIP in the mid-1990s and many have been “IP-enabled” since 1999.

The Federal Communications Commission recently began a closer examination of these IP transition issues.  Our organizations welcome this thoughtful step, and, as part of that process, the FCC should ensure there is a meaningful, well-defined regulatory framework that will drive industry innovation and investment and guarantee the provision of high-quality, reliable advanced services for consumers.  For example, the FCC must ensure that carriers can continue to interconnect with one another on reasonable, non-discriminatory terms in an “IP world,” and must instill certainty surrounding how access to IP-enabled networks and services will be sustained in hard-to-serve areas. 

Despite the obvious benefits that flow to consumers from having clear-cut “rules of the road,” some larger service providers adamantly oppose them.  They ignore the fact that IP is simply a transmission technology and a natural evolution of the PSTN.  Furthermore, they erroneously claim that regulating IP networks would equate to regulating the Internet.

The truth is that while they both may use similar underlying software protocols and the same underlying physical infrastructure, the public Internet and privately owned and operated managed IP networks operate as distinctly different networks.  The Internet is a public data network that offers only “best effort” services.  While good enough to handle Web browsing and email access, it can be subject to delays and performance quality issues that would never be an acceptable substitute for the reliability of the telephone network to which consumers and businesses are accustomed.  Private, managed networks provide much higher quality, assured delivery of voice services.  These services do not traverse over the general Internet, and the seamless flow of communications across and between these managed networks is essential to fulfill consumer expectations and demands.
 
To realize the full benefits of such technological innovations, the IP transition must not be frustrated or undermined as a result of misinformation, regulatory uncertainty, or a lack of reasonably tailored, but effective, oversight.  By ensuring common sense consumer protection, universal service, and competitive market responsibilities apply throughout this transition, we have the opportunity to get this transition right and continue delivering innovative broadband services across the nation. 

James is CEO of COMPTEL; Bloomfield is CEO of NTCA - the Rural Broadband Association; Berry is president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association; and Polka is president and CEO of the American Cable Association.