The FCC Sets the Ground Rules For Shutting Down The Phone System — And Sets the Stage For Universal Broadband.

Here’s the funny thing about the world. The two Orders the FCC will vote on tomorrow (Thursday, July 14) probably have more impact on the future of our communications infrastructure than the Title II reclassification of broadband. But like most momentous things in technology, no one notices because they are technical and everyone’s eyes glaze over.


In particular, no one notices the sleep inducing and incredibly vaguely named item “Technology Transitions,” we are talking about the conclusion of a 4 year proceeding on how to shut down the legacy phone system and move all our national communications platforms to a mix of digital platforms. That does not mean we’re getting rid of copper and going to all fiber (a common misconception). In fact, in many communities, the old copper lines might get pulled out and replaced with wireless technologies (what we call wire-to-wireless transition). Those who still remember when Verizon tried this after Super Storm Sandy on Fire Island will understand why so many of us wanted to make sure we have an organized transition with quality control and federal oversight.


But most people don’t remember this anymore. And, if you are not one of the 60 million or so people (mostly rural, poor or elderly) who still depends on the traditional copper line telephone, you may wonder what this has to do with your life. The short answer is: the old phone system still provides the backbone of our communications system of shiny digital thingies we take for granted. The old copper line phone system is also the workhorse of most ATMs, retail cash registers, and thousands of other things we take for granted every day. Why? Because the old copper line network has been around forever. It’s an open system everyone can – by law – plug into and no one ever imagined would go away.


But even more important for the future of our communications infrastructure – the Federal Communications Commission made this a values driven transition. In a bipartisan unanimous 5-0 vote back in January 2014, the FCC rejected the idea of making the Tech Transition a “get out of regulation free zone” and adopted four basic principles to guide the transition: Universal Access, Competition, Consumer Protection and Public Safety.


As a result, for once, for once, we actually have a chance to prevent the inequality before it happens. It took 100 years, but if there is one thing Americans took for granted, it was that we all had the same phone system and could all communicate with each other on equal terms. The rules the FCC adopts will make it possible to preserve this principle of universal access. Because this network forms the backbone of the broadband network, if we work together and don’t blow it, we can achieve the same success with broadband that we achieved with basic telephone service.


I dig into this below . . .

I know all this can seem abstract and confusing, so I’ll start with a hypothetical that may make this more concrete. If you have a child in elementary school, that school has a fire alarm. that fire alarm has a copper wire that plugs into the part of the traditional phone network specially designed to connect directly to the alarm system at the fire station. Even if your school updated its phones to digital, and every teacher and administrator has a cell phone, that old technology on the fire alarm hasn’t changed. It’s still a legacy copper line that runs into the legacy phone system to reach the fire department.


Sometime in the next 5-10 years, the phone company that controls that network is going to come along and rip out all the guts of the system that connects the elementary school and the fire alarm and replace it with a nice, shiny new digital guts that have lots of great new capacity and stuff.


That’s really awesome neat-o keen cool. Phone companies like Verizon and AT&T are going to invest tens of billions of dollars over the next 5-10 years upgrading their equipment and so forth. Yay! This creates lots of jobs — union jobs for a change — and potentially brings lots of cool stuff to your community. Yay! We love it when we upgrade our infrastructure!


But bad news. No one remembered to deal with the elementary school fire alarm. Because everyone was all Yay! Shiny! New! Digital! And the ever popular: “I have a cell phone, so I don’t see why I need to worry about the old copper line network.” Add to that the “regulation is bad and state and federal regulators shouldn’t even THINK about getting in the way of this awesome project!” and, well, turns out we forgot to hook up the elementary school fire alarm.


And it’s a real shame, because it wasn’t a hard problem to solve. It’s just that no one thought about it. Or your parent’s medical alert system. Or whether TTY and other technologies for the hearing impaired would still work. So now, instead of having a little doohickey that plugs your 1970s elementary school fire alarm into the bright shiny digital phone network, the school teacher evacuating your child and 40 other kids is also frantically calling 911 on her cell phone to get to the fire department.


Happily, that did not happen.


How the FCC Put Values First And Created A Win-Win Transition Process.


Instead, the FCC put values first. They adopted a bipartisan set of fundamental values to guide the transition in 2014 (based on the 5 Fundamental Values paper my employer Public Knowledge (PK) published in 2013). The FCC next adopted a set of rules for “copper loop retirement” in 2015 to make sure that people got advance notice that their copper line would be replaced and what that would mean for them (no back up power in a black out, certain legacy devices like medical monitors and security systems might not work). The 2015 Order also set rules so that competitors and businesses that rely on the old infrastructure and copper lines will have comparable access to the new, bright shiny digital infrastructure.


What Tomorrow’s FCC Order Will Do.


Tomorrow, the FCC adopts the last in a series of orders that will make it possible for the phase out of the legacy phone system to proceed in an orderly fashion that provides enough oversight to make sure everything will actually work, but still allows phone companies the certainty and flexibility they need to upgrade their networks in a rational and cost-effective way. Ideally, the FCC’s Order will push both the phone companies and the local communities to treat this as a collaborative process rather than a contentious process.


The FCC Order will adopt the technical “check list” based on the criteria and engineering report submitted by PK in 2014, and supported by organizations like the Communications Workers of America, AARP, TURN and other consumer protection groups. That means making sure we don’t forget the elementary school fire alarm, or that computerized traffic control system the city set up in 1982, or how the city will budget to replace its several hundred fax machines that, yes, lots of people STILL use even if you scan and email everything, because faxes are cheap and they don’t get hacked. It means giving people time to replace their old devices that depend on the legacy telephone system that no one thought would ever go away with something (perhaps even something better) that works with the new communications infrastructure.


The Order will also include an outreach and education requirement, so that the phone company must let everyone know about the upgrade of the infrastructure, what the impacts are, and how it will work with the community to make the transition as seamless as possible.  That will make it possible for the community to work with the phone company to figure out how to fit changes in the technology in the local government budget cycle, in the local business budget cycle, and with time for everyone in the community to understand that the change is coming and what it will mean to them.


At the same time, the FCC makes clear that keeping copper forever is not an option. We really do need to upgrade our communications infrastructure so it can support all the nice shiny stuff we increasingly depend on for just about every aspect of our lives. Customers have a right to enjoy the benefits of the upgrade, but no one has a right to keep our basic communications infrastructure frozen forever.


The Triumph of Values And Why That Matters To Our Communications Future.


No, the FCC Order is not perfect. But what the Order does do, and is critically important, is drive the process from the fundamental values adopted on a 5-0 vote in 2013: Service to All Americans, Competition, Consumer Protection, and Public Safety.


As a result, the Order for once, FOR ONCE, tries to stop the inequality before it happens. It sets up a process to make this an upgrade for EVERYONE, not an upgrade for some and a downgrade for others. it shows that we can have good economic policy of encouraging an orderly transition from the old network to the new network and protect the public and encourage competition and create more good union jobs all at the same time. It shows that while big companies may not be happy about spending more money — especially in communities with low rates of return — they are not stupid either. If spending extra to improve their outreach plan and submitting their engineering studies on the replacement technology to the FCC’s staff creates a process that will let them move forward without political blow back when the next Fire Island-type disaster occurs, they recognize it’s worth it in the long run.


I am truly hopeful that the procedures the FCC sets in place in this Order will make it possible to make this transition a collaborative process between the private sector and the local community – meaning everyone regardless of race, income level, or any other division between have and have nots — rather than a confrontational process. The rules the FCC are adopting make it easy to move ahead when doing the right thing, but provide enough supervision as a check against the phone companies cutting corners or having competitors try to stall the process for their own private gain. It protects those who depend on traditional copper line systems for life saving services, and makes the transition away from these services easier for consumers.


I recognize how it could all be blown up and manipulated by the phone companies. I’m not a naive newbie. But to use my favorite quote from the author Lois Bujold: “the man who believes he is always being lied to is as likely to be wrong as the man who believes everything he’s told.” The best any agency can do is set the table. We, the people in every community, need to grab this process and use it to work with the phone companies to bring the benefits of the digital transition to everyone – and hold them accountable if they try to cut corners.


Finally, although it is the least tangible, it is the most important. Until the tech transition, the idea of the public interest in communications infrastructure was dying. Market triumphalism was about to sweep away over 225 years of fundamental values that have governed our nation’s communications networks since the Constitution gave Congress the power to make postal roads. With this Order, we breathe new life into these public interest embers.


As we wrestle with how to secure our broadband future for everyone, we will start with a strong foundation that builds on our universal phone system. It took close to 100 years to get over 96% penetration of the old phone system. It was a massive project to try to overcome the systemic exclusion of non-white communities (we never did manage to provide effective phone service for Native American tribes) from when the system was deployed. It took a host of federal and state laws to get build out of working and reliable infrastructure in rural areas where the costs of maintaining the networks is highest and the rate of return lowest. While the FCC’s Order addressing the phase out of this amazing legacy phone system does not guarantee answers to how to do this for broadband, it does make sure that we are not starting from scratch.


The bones of our 21st century communications infrastructure will still be shaped by the same underlying values that made our 20th Century infrastructure the envy of the world. That alone makes the last four years since the process started worth it.


Stay tuned . . .


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