Why Does The Internet Innovation Association Hate The Rural Call Completion Order, Privacy, and Next Generation 9-1-1?

The Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) became the latest trade association demanding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the states stop working to solve the Rural Call Completion problem. IIA also called for state and federal agencies to stop working on Next Generation 9-1-1 issues, apparently deciding the recent report by CalNena about the declining reliability of mobile 9-1-1 location information was nothing to worry about.  The new report preemptively called for an end to any effort to deal with the growing problem of caller i.d. spoofing and related vulnerabilities in voice-over-IP (VOIP) services. Finally, IIA demanded we eliminate the “legacy rules” that limit the ability of the government or companies to read your call records. You can read the report here..


Granted, the report didn’t say that explicitly. Instead, the IIA repeated what has become the standard industry refrain about how the key to transitioning our phone system from traditional technology to Internet protocol (IP) and wireless is to totally eliminate all federal or state authority over the new phone services. But it amounts to the same thing. A demand that we end the FCC’s authority under “legacy phone regulations” that allow it to address Rural Call Completion translates rather directly into consigning Rural America to telephone purgatory — especially when you give no indication of what should replace it.


The IIA Report is only the latest in what appears to be a never-ending series of white papers, opinion pieces and typical Washington blather on how the bestest thing we can do to transition the phone system is get rid of “legacy regulation.” Because although the market is apparently already so totally going there that we don’t need to worry about the 100 Million people and millions of small business that rely on copper (the one third of the market that still has a traditional copper line), pernicious legacy regulation is sadly holding things back so much we must eliminate it right away. Try not to think about this contradiction too hard.


If the IIA talking points sound familiar, it’s because they are exactly the same as those used by Verizon to explain why Voice Link was just the medicine Fire Island needed to recover from Sandy.  If we want the PSTN Transition to get the same reaction that Fire Island residents gave Voice Link, by all means let us continue down this path. If we would prefer to avoid a crash and burn that makes the opening days of the Affordable Care Act look like smooth sailing, I highly recommend industry groups like IIA stop trying to leverage this for regulatory arbitrage and start coming up with some real proposals on how to upgrade our policies while we upgrade our phone system.


More below . . . .

For those in need of background see this rather lengthy post here. Briefly, we have this thing called the “Public Switched Telephone Network” or PSTN. While technically the FCC defines “public switched network” as “anything that uses phone numbers,” most of the the things we think of as applying to telephone networks apply to traditional copper telephone lines using something called TDM.  As regular readers know, for a wide variety of reasons, the major traditional telephone companies (AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink) are transitioning their networks from TDM technologies to IP and wireless.


As I’ve repeatedly said, this is a big deal because it gives us a chance to figure out a rational policy for our communications infrastructure rather than the arbitrary crazy stuff we have now. But more importantly, as I keep saying with increasing franticness because no one seems to carethis stuff has to actually work.


The problem with the IIA Report (and its various clones that seem to pop out once a week) is not jus that it absolutely fails to acknowledge this basic reality. It’s that this nonsense keeps hijacking the debate away from the important question of “how do we transition our phone system without screwing people over or breaking basic functions that people depend on for everything from the trivial and the life threatening” to “how do we exploit this in our quest for regulatory goodies.”


This is exactly the thing that drives the paranoia of other stakeholders and makes them want to dig in their heels and shout rather than engage in serious discussion.


In fairness, the Report makes a passing nod to the values identified in Public Knowledge’s Five Fundamentals Framework. “Some of the goals behind the ILEC regulations remain relevant: ensuring that communications-access is available to all, that traffic will flow smoothly, that anyone on the network can reach anyone else, that public safety is well served—these goals still have to be satisfied.” One may scan in vain, however, for any recommendation for addressing these concerns beyond the tired and self-serving argument that if we just ‘get government out of the way’ then ‘the market’ will tend to all our needs.


But that’s it. The paper does not even acknowledge existing issues, such as rural call completion, let alone emerging problems like caller i.d. spoofing. It says nothing about dealing with concerns like the CalNena report on problems with wireless 9-1-1 location information. To the contrary, not only does IIA consider them unworthy of mention, we can apparently solve them by wholesale elimination of FCC authority to address them.


IIA also seems remarkably happy with the prospect of eliminating such “legacy” regulation as privacy protection for consumers – at the moment still dependent on the old copper TDM rules. To the extent subscribers enjoy privacy protection on IP-based and wireless services, they do so as an extension of the old “legacy” rules. And while Americans have embraced new technologies for their phone service, I have never met anyone who says to me “I have too much privacy protection on my phone. Could you eliminate all those nasty legacy privacy regulations that keep NSA from plugging directly into my phone conversations like they do into my email?”


But according to IIA, these sorts “legacy regulations,” are what’s holding back, and the only thing we need to focus on for a ‘successful transition’ is getting rid of these pesky consumer protection rules and the authority to address problems like Rural Call Completion.



We Need Real Proposals To Move Things Forward.


IIA is merely the latest in what seems a steady stream of white papers repeating the same basic talking points. The universe of telecommunications has evolved to include a number of new providers offering many consumers a choice of new options and new technologies.(true). Economic and technological factors now drive providers still offering traditional copper-based service to move to new technologies (also true). Therefore we ought to get rid of all the old regulations that are clearly no longer needed and let the free market magic happen.


If these arguments sound familiar, they should. They were exactly the arguments Verizon made as to why no one should question their deployment of Voice Link. After all, they repeatedly argued, 80% of the voice traffic off Fire Island was already wireless, 40% of the market have already “cut the cord,” so “the market has already decided,” and who are Public Knowledge to suggest that the people of Fire Island needed something else?


Turns out, however, there is a huge difference between “the market” and actual people. Actual people like choices. A full third of them – that’s 100 million people – still use copper lines just like the folks on Fire Island did. Yes, as IIA observes in its report, only 5% are “exclusively” copper landline as opposed to “copper +wireless.” If the 95 million people who are still paying for traditional copper land lines despite also having a wireless phone keep paying for a copper landline, you can bet that — just like the good folks on Fire Island — they will notice you are messing with it. And they will be very, very pissed.


Trust me, 95 million people re not keeping a traditional copper line because they like writing two checks to AT&T and Verizon. Really.


Get Serious Or Get Ready For Disaster.


If we want to repeat the “success” of Fire Island, we can just keep repeating the same talking points like IIA. If we would like to keep this from crashing and burning, we need industry organizations to step up with real proposals. Don’t just tell me that “oh sure, we’ll protect consumers.” Tell me how you are going to protect consumers. Are we going to keep the same strong privacy rules we have now, or is my telephone going to have the same privacy protections (and I use that term ironically) as Facebook?


And above all else, please stop trying to cut out the FCC. Based on Fire Island and rural call completion, you guys in the phone industry need somebody to save your ass when this goes sour.


Stay tuned . . . .