Shutting Down the Phone System: Comcast’s Very Scary Filing

I’ve been sorting through the various filings at the FCC in the Phone Network to IP transition docket. I single out the 7-page filing by Comcast as the filing that scares the absolute bejeebers out of me.


Why? Because everyone else – no matter what their financial interest or political alignment – at least paid lip service to the idea that we ought to have some kind of regulation. Whether it’s a general nod to a “minimal and light touch regulatory regime” or a specific shopping list, the vast majority of commenters recognized then when you have something as big, complicated and utterly essential to people’s lives as the phone system, you need some kind of basic backstop for people to feel comfortable and to address problems that will invariably come up. Even AT&T has made it utterly clear that it does not see the future of phone service as a regulation-free zone.” Even staunch free market conservatives such as TechFreedom and Free State Foundation acknowledge that, as a practical matter, there is going to need to be some set of rules – even if they hope to keep these rules to what they regard as the barest minimum necessary.


Comcast, and Comcast alone, suggests otherwise. Comcast alone thinks we can manage the phone system as the Libertarian Nirvana. This smacks either of unbelievable hubris (“we’re so big everyone will have to deal with us – what could go wrong?”) or an incredible sense of market power (“we’re so big everyone will have to deal with us – heh heh heh”). Either way, this sends chills down my spine, because the filing signals loud and clear that Comcast – one of the largest providers of residential phone service in the United States, the largest residential broadband provider, and the single most powerful entity in U.S. telecom policy – simply doesn’t get it when it comes to the future of the phone system.


As I explain below, Comcast needs to understand that “With Great Market Share Comes Great Responsibility.” Because when you are this big, even what you don’t say can have huge consequences. Comcast is beyond “too big to fail.” It is now officially in its own regulatory category called “too big to be allowed to screw up.” Because Comcast is now so big, and so central to communications in the United States, that it could single-handedly crash the phone system by stupidly trying to manage it as if it were the cable world. Unless Comcast gets with the program and acknowledges the need for some kind of ongoing oversight of the phone system, this transition is guaranteed to become an utter disaster.


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Cecilia Kang Is Right: There Really Could Be A Free National WiFi Network (of Networks)

This past week, we’ve had quite the discussion around Cecilia Kang’s WashPo piece describing a plan by the FCC to create a national WiFi network by making the right decisions about how to allocate spectrum between licenses for auction and what to leave available for the unlicensed TV white spaces (“TVWS” aka “Super WiFi” aka “Wifi on steroids”). As Kang describes, the FCC’s opening of sufficient spectrum for TVWS could lead to “super WiFi networks (emphasis added) around the nation so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls  or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.”

Needless to say, the article faced much pushback, despite a subsequent Washpo clarification to indicate the FCC was not, actually, planing to build a network. Amidst the various critics, there were some general defenders of the concept. My colleagues at EFF noted that increasing the availability of open spectrum for WiFi-type uses , and my friends at Free Press argued that such a free public wifi network (or, more accurately, series of networks) is in fact possible if the FCC makes enough good quality spectrum, suitable for broadband and usable out doors, available on an unlicensed basis.

I will now go a step further than any of my colleagues. I will boldly state that, if the FCC produces a solid 20 MHz of contiguous empty space for TV White spaces in the Incentive Auction proceeding, or even two 10 MHz guard channels that could nationally produce two decent sized LTE-for unlicensed channels, then we will have exactly the kind of free publicly available wifi Kang describes in her article. Or, “Yes Cecilia, there really is free national public wifi. Don’t let the haters and know-it-alls tell you otherwise.”


More below . . .


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I’m Testifying Tomorrow And It Will Be WCIT-Awesome!

I will be testifying tomorrow at a joint hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecom and Technology and Several of the Foreign Affairs Committees tomorrow, February 5 at 10:30 a.m. The hearing, Fighting For Internet Freedom: Dubai and Beyond will focus on the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) that took place in Dubai this past December.

If you click on the Hearing Homepage tomorrow, there should be a link for livestreaming. I am hoping this will prove entertaining and informative. Well, at least informative.

Stay tuned . . .

Shutting Down the Phone System: “IP” Does Not Equal “Fiber,” “Fiber Does Not Equal IP.”

As regular readers know, I regard the upgrade of the phone system (aka the “public switched telephone network” or “PSTN”) to an all-IP based network as a majorly huge deal. As I’ve explained at length before, this is a huge deal because of a bunch of decisions the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made over the years that have fragmented our various policies and regulations about phones into a crazy-quilt of different rules tied sometimes to the technology (IP v. traditional phone (TDM)) and sometimes to the actual medium of transmission (copper v. fiber v. cable v. wireless). This whacky set of FCC decisions has produced a great deal of confusion about what we are talking about when we talk about the upgrade of the phone network.


As a result, people keep pointing out the same two things to me over and over and over. “AT&T is not switching to fiber to the home! Their upgrade is still copper!” The other is: “Verizon is pulling up all their copper in New York City (and everywhere else in the Sandy zone) and shifting customers from copper to FIOS without getting any permission from anyone!” These observations are usually made with the same fervor as Charlton Heston giving out his recipe for Soylent Green.


Allow me to debunk the Cult of the Copper Snake (with bonus points for recognizing the Biblical reference. And no, it isn’t the Golden Calf. It’s the Copper Snake.) You can have an all IP network that runs on copper, and you can run a traditional TDM-based network over fiber that is treated like a phone service. Both of these are different from a TDM-system that runs on copper.  All three are treated differently from each other from a regulatory perspective. I also must point out, in AT&T’s defense, that AT&T never claimed it was upgrading to fiber, and in fact has been quite specific that they are not going FttH (to Wall St.’s great relief and the disappointment of many others paying attention).


If you want to stop here, you can. If you want to find out why this is true, and why people keep confusing them, then you must continue on, delving into the minutiae of the last ten years of regulatory history. While a pain in the patootie to sort through (and I will do what I can to make it less boring where possible), it’s worth it if you want to understand what’s going on and how AT&T can be going on about how this is going to improve broadband and blah blah blah without ever promising to move to fiber to the home.

More below . . . .

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