Voice Link Sitcom Now Playing The Borscht Belt — Shows Why We Need STATE Jurisidiction Not Just FCC.

New York is extremely lucky that it has not joined the Chump Parade and totally deregulated its telecom sector, although apparently it has such a proposal on the table. I say this because New York now faces one of those quintessential local problems that is much, much better handled at the state level than on the federal level.

It involves Verizon’s Voice Link product.  As regular readers know, That Darn Voice Link is the summer replacement series for Game of Sprint —  the Sprint/Softbank/DISH/CLWR drama which is now winding down.The plot for That Darn Voice Link is fairly straightforward. Scrappy little Voice Link, the daughter of the highly successful Verizon Wireless family, must get along with curmudgeonly old Uncle Copper while learning the family business and replacing Uncle Copper as the landline substitute. Will Voice Link provide a valuable alternative service? Or is Voice Link not yet ready for her big debut? Hijinks ensue!

In this week’s episode, Voice Link may have been selling herself a little too aggressively to some problem customers up in the Catskills. The State Attorney General thinks Voice Link crossed the line, but Voice Link insists she was just being helpful.

So is Voice Link going to get in trouble? Will the Federal Communications Commission get involved? Will this hurt Voice Link’s big debut on Fire Island?

Probably not. But it does underscore the very real question of what does it mean for Verizon to offer Voice Link as an alternative service while still genuinely offering copper, and stresses the importance of state jurisdiction — because there is no way the FCC can handle this sort of one-off local practice thing effectively.

 

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Congratulations To Senator Markey! Good News For Telecom on Unlicensed, Competition, and Consumer Protection.

Last night, Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) became Senator Ed Markey. That’s good news for Massachusetts, but also good news for those hoping to see a telecom agenda move through the Senate (assuming Markey is assigned to the Commerce Committee).

For those unfamiliar with Ed Markey’s track record on telecom and media, you should thank him every time you watch television with closed captions. That includes online. Markey has been a champion for the physically disabled and consumers generally, and the closed captioning rules in both the 1992 Cable Act and in the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 are the direct results of his efforts.

Markey’s return to the Commerce Committee in the Senate would be particularly welcome in light of the serious “brain drain” the Committee has suffered in terms of its Telecom leadership on both the Democratic and Republican side. Since last Congress the Committee has lost Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), all of whom had significant telecom expertise.

Markey — assuming he takes Kerry’s place on the Committee (as a member not as Chair of the Subcommittee) — will bring passion for critical telecom issues facing the Committee. In addition to being a champion for consumer protection generally, we can hope that Markey will remind his colleagues that there is more to the Incentive Auctions than maximizing revenue. In particular, on the critical issues of preserving spectrum for TV white spaces and using the auction to put spectrum in the hands of competitors, Markey has been a powerful voice in the House.

Equally important, Markey’s experience and ability to reach across the aisle will prove profoundly important as Congress overseas the transition of the telephone system.  As one of the chief architects of the 1996 Telecom Act and one of the few members of the Committee whose tenure goes back to the 1992 Cable Act, Markey brings a perspective that would otherwise be absent after Senator Rockefeller retires. Markey actually remembers why we had these rules in the first place, and the important fundamental principles they are intended to protect and encourage.

While Congress has not yet become active on the PSTN transition, we can expect they inevitably will. When that happens, Markey’s experience in everything from Universal Service Fund to Accessibility issues will be critical to keeping the Committee on the right track.

Stay tuned . . .

Out of the mouths of babes— my prescient conversation with former FCC Chair Kevin Martin about NSA/Telecom surveillance

So a few years ago the FCC held a hearing (at Harvard University) on Net Neutrality & yours truly attended same (and the reception with FCC members following thereafter) & wrote a post about it on this very site Wetmachine. In light of all the Snowden/NSA/telecom stuff in the news, I thought to bring attention to this little reportage, of a conversation between me and then-FCC Chair Kevin Martin about collusion between the US government & telecom providers, warrantless surveillance, and all that:

So we talked about net neutrality and participatory democracy for a while. And then another fine fellow came along and joined the conversation (he was wearing a funny T-shirt that had a picture the old OSI stack model, with two additional stacks, “Financial” and “Political” with a little notation pointing to the “Political” layer saying “you are here”.) The conversation got onto the subject of GPS information in cell phones, which the FCC mandated.

Martin said, “I told those guys for two solid years to come up with a plan, but they never did. So I acted.” He talked about testimony from 911 call centers that 40% of their calls could not be responded to because they didn’t know where the caller was. But OSI-guy and I wanted to know about privacy considerations. Why, my neighbor with the cool T-shirt wanted to know, couldn’t the phones be programmed to only send geographic information when a 911 call was made?

Martin said that phone companies were legally enjoined from sharing private information, including GPS. I said, “why should we believe them? Why should we believe a word the telecom companies say? They lie and lie and lie, and expect immunity for it.”

Martin repeated with the regulatory and judicial history of how private information had been let out, had been used by stalkers, private investigators, etc, but now all that was now illegal.

I said, “That’s not my point. I’m concerned about them sharing the information with the government. They’ve been spying on all of us without warrants for years!”

Martin said something like “national security, law enforcement, those are different areas altogether.”

And I said, “What, and the law doesn’t apply?” but he didn’t hear me, as several people were speaking at once.

I don’t have anything else to add, other than a tip o’ the cap to my esteemed Wetmachine co-blogger Harold Feld for his coinage of the term “Cassandrafreude”, that feeling you get when you get to say “See, didn’t I tell you?” when something bad, which you have long been warning against, actually happens.  I expect that many of you won’t be able to read the original citation, above, on Harold’s Livejournal blog, so for added Cassandrafreude pleasure, see his recent Wetmachine entry
Associated Press is shocked –SHOCKED — To Discover Government Cannot Be Trusted With Power to Spy
where he pretty much predicted everything that Mr. Snowden has since brought to an even wider audience than Wetmachine enjoys.

For the First Time In 100 Years, Copper Lines Come Down And Don’t Go Back Up. Verizon Files It’s 214(a) To Stop Copper Service In NY & NJ.

Verizon has filed its request to the FCC to discontinue copper service in certain communities on Fire Island, NY and the Barrier Island of NJ, as required by Section 214(a) and 47 C.F.R. 63.71. You can find a copy here. At some point, the FCC will put this out on Public Notice and then folks can file objections if they want.

In some ways, this is a little thing impacting only a few communities. In other ways, it is a very big deal. If there is a single moment to point to and say “This is it! This is The Day We Started To Shut Down The Phone Network,” that day is today. With this little routine barely noticed filing for an administrative procedure that impacts a handful of communities.

Why? Because for the first time, the local phone company has said “once the old copper lines come down, they are not coming back — ever. We are out of the traditional phone service on Fire Island and Barrier Island and no one else is going to provide it either.”

Yes, there are other services that will sell you voice service. They will tell you its a phone. Each of these does many things the old phone system does, and most of these services do amazing things the old phone system could never do.

But like any transition — especially one that rests on a social contract people have relied upon for 100 years — we must expect a lot of disruption as well as anticipate the potential benefits. Verizon should not need to maintain an increasingly expensive and antiquated copper network until the end of time. Nor should they be required to rebuild copper they expect to shut down again in a few years time.

At the same time, we don’t just throw people under the bus — or send them suddenly scrambling for expensive alternatives. I’ve objected before to the way Verizon has moved forward with Voice Link because Sandy victims should not be guinea pigs for Voice Link’s first ever mass deployment.  At Public Knowledge, we’ve also had some concerns about what Verizon says Voice Link doesn’t do that the old copper service did do. Some of these can be addressed relatively easily, and Verizon has stated publicly it is working on improvements in things like battery life and using commercially available double AA batteries. Services that are considered vitally important by some communities, such as the ability to use international calling cards and receive collect calls, would require more work.

The question isn’t whether we transition the phone system or don’t. The question is how we transition. This is why my employer Public Knowledge has supported using a Framework of Five Fundamental Principles to guide the transition: Service to All Americans, Consumer Protection, Reliability, Public Safety, and Competition. This is why we have supported AT&T’s call to engage in dialog on the transition, and endorsed the idea of carefully conducted technical trials that protect consumers and genuinely inform the process.

As the FCC and state regulators evaluate Verizon’s application to end copper wire service entirely and replace it with Voice Link, it should evaluate Voice Link under the Five Fundamentals Framework. Does Voice Link provide adequate service to all members of the community, including the poor and vulnerable who have depended most heavily on the “copper safety net” of the old phone system? Does it adequately protect consumers? Will it function reliably in an emergency? And what are the implications for competition?

Above all else, the transition of the phone system and the end of the old copper network must not be a step backward. Handled properly, the transition can benefit everyone. There is nothing magical about copper.  All the fundamental principles we have relied on for 100 years — service to all Americans, consumer protection, reliability, public safety, and competition — were the result of deliberate policy choices. We can maintain these principles as we move forward to new wireless and IP-based networks, or we can chose to discard them.

Verizon and AT&T, understandably, have stressed everything we have to gain from the networks of the 21st Century. It falls to the regulators — and the public that holds them accountable — to make sure these gains do not come by sacrificing the poorest and most vulnerable.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

Quick Update: Verizon Responds To Yesterday’s Blog Post.

Tom Maguire, Verizon’s point person for the Fire Island deployment, responds to my blog post here. At the end of the blog post, Maguire states that: “In addition, as part of our ongoing communications with the Federal Communications Commission, we have been working with the FCC for some time on filing the appropriate discontinuance filings and other notices for the affected services.”

 

Hopefully, Verizon will file sooner rather than later so that we can have the full and robust debate these important policy questions deserve. Remember, we are not just talking about Fire Island. We are talking about what rules apply anywhere a disaster destroys the copper infrastructure and the provider wants to replace it with something other than traditional copper phone service. For Verizon, that’s Voice Link. But the same rules apply if AT&T (or anyone else) wants to replace traditional TDM service with VOIP.

 

Tom and I were also (separately) interviewed by WAMC (the NPR affiliate in Albany) last week, you can find a transcript and audio here. Tom was responding there to my original blog post arguing that Verizon should replace copper with fiber rather than with an untested wireless technology. Amusingly, Maguire’s call (on cell, not Voice Link) dropped during the interview.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

 

Making the Tech Tool Work

A classmate of my daughter was too shy to present her social studies final project. So my daughter offered to record her presentation at home, boost the voice, and give the recording to the teacher. Brilliant. The teacher has accepted.

It’s wonderful that this is not a particular remarkable use of technology these days. But in this case, my daughter and her classmate are special-needs students. I try to take to heart Alan Kay’s maxim that if technology works well for kids, it will work well for everyone, and doubly so for everyone who faces challenges. I cannot express how very proud I am that my daughter is using technology to give her friend a voice.

It takes a lot of work by technologists to make a success like this possible at all. It further takes a lot of work by technology advocates to make the possible a more commonplace part of our everyday culture. We all benefit when every one of us has the widest possible set of tools available to us, and it is advocates that make that happen. It makes me sad that critics of what they call technology solutionism would fail to do everything possible to enlarge everyone’s toolset.

FCC Needs To Step Up On Voice Link; Nature (and Natural Disasters) Abhor A Vacuum

According to this report from Stop the Cap, Federal Communication Commission (FCC) line staff are telling your average citizen who calls to ask that Verizon can refuse to repair their copper lines as long as Verizon offers Voice Link instead. “It is acceptable” for Verizon to refuse to offer copper service even if “there will be no landlines” available at all, said FCC Representative TSR54. (And no, I did not make up the designation just to make this look more like some faceless bureaucratic drone.)

 

Did I miss the FCC Order on this? No.  But the fact that FCC line staff are taking it upon themselves to say this is totally O.K. shows just how badly the FCC has lost control of the situation. The FCC needs to move quickly to (a) makes Verizon file the necessary application under federal law to discontinue its traditional copper service so the FCC can actually decide this question for real; and, (b) develop a process for carriers in areas where disasters have destroyed copper infrastructure to replace that infrastructure with a new product like Voice Link or voice-over-IP (VOIP). Otherwise, we can forget about having any kind of useful pilot program where we protect consumers and gather information.  Carriers will take the Verizon approach, and convert natural disasters into “nature’s little laboratories.”

 

After all, nature abhors a vacum — whether in space or in policy. If the FCC continues to let Verizon decide on the proper policy for itself, we can expect other carriers to stop playing by the FCC’s rules and follow in Verizon’s footsteps.

 

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