High-speed broadband networks with a safety net

There is an urgent need to complete the upgrade of the century-old telephone network, and replace it with a sparkling new broadband communications system that links to the Internet; moves information, data, and video at lightning speed; and carries our voice “phone” calls, too. It’s an exciting change that creates jobs, opens the door to improved schooling, and enhances access to medical care among other benefits.

It also means saying goodbye to a familiar friend – the old telephone network that’s enabled us to chat with friends and family from the comfort of our own homes for more than 100 years. A marvel of the 20th Century, that system is now becoming obsolete, surpassed by broadband technologies capable of delivering phone calls and offering a myriad of new communications services and applications.

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The switch to the next-generation network is invigorating; it’s beneficial and, as the consumer group Public Knowledge has pointed out, “It’s inevitable.”  In fact, the vast majority of Americans, perhaps 75 percent, have already made the move. Their house phone, which may look and feel just like what they’ve always had, is now connected to and powered by the same broadband technology that connects their computers to the Internet and can deliver high-definition TV programs, as well. With so many making the switch, the old network has grown redundant and increasingly costly to operate and maintain. In fact, some manufacturers have already pulled the plug and stopped making antiquated equipment for the telephone network, such as the circuit switches used to connect calls.  

This nationwide upgrade and modernization requires thought and planning, and should be undertaken in a way that protects consumers and assures that basic voice service remains available and reliable. That’s why we ought to do it now – while the existing phone system can provide a “safety net” as a back-up for any potential glitch or surprise that might arise during the complex transition toward a new and modern technology. 

Although inevitable, the move to the network of the future is gradual enough that we now have an opportunity to direct and shape it in a seamless way for America’s consumers. Since we know it’s coming, we owe it to ourselves to make sure it happens the right way and ensure that any potential disruptions are minimized for those who choose to arrive late to the high-speed broadband age.

Central to a smooth transition is having public dialogue among all stakeholders – consumers, telecom companies, suppliers, and regulators – to help set the rules of the road for the new network. Under a collaborative process, we should arrive at key principles to guide us – perhaps beginning with five concepts recently proposed by Public Knowledge – service for all, competition, reliability, consumer protection, and public safety. 

In addition to overarching principles, important technical activity, such as geographic field tests, must commence to better understand what works and what doesn’t in real life and to find solutions for the issues that will inevitably arise. Such advance testing, similar to the trials conducted for America’s switch to digital TV, is the best way to protect consumers. Trials give us the chance to come up with fixes now while the old telephone network is in place to lessen any potential consumer disruption associated with the switchover.

Upgrading and deploying modern broadband networks in a controlled, supervised fashion with “safety net” functionality in place is far superior to inaction. Beyond the obsolescence that is rapidly diminishing the circuit-switched network, as we witnessed during the past hurricane season, our nation’s older telephone system is highly susceptible to the forces of nature and the physical destruction they can bring.     

In the future, when natural disasters obliterate legacy telephone networks, service restoration for consumers and businesses will be achieved through the deployment of new wireless and/or broadband network technologies. Under those circumstances, network upgrades occur without the benefit of the existing copper telephone network and the likelihood of consumer inconvenience and disruption being much greater.

Right now, we have the gift of time to get the path toward modernization right by devising a smart new framework tailored for next-generation communications. But without an action plan, such as starting local market trials, some of that time slips away each day. We need to get working without further delay so that the transition to 21st Century communications is a step forward for all and a step backward for none. 

Boucher served in the House from 1983 to 2011, where for he was chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and co-founded the Congressional Internet Caucus. Today he is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and heads the government strategies practice at the law firm Sidley Austin, which represents communications companies among other clients.