I know Net Neutrality is the defining issue of our times, etc. But given that about 96% of the country use some kind of telephone, I thought it was kind of important to notice that the FCC is finally, after many years of chugging along, getting the ball rolling on the whole “Shutting Off The Phone System” Thing. And — Good News! — The FCC is starting out in a very strong, pro-consumer way that actually asks all the good questions on competition and stuff.
So, do I have your attention yet? Good. The short version is that the FCC is holding an open meeting on Friday, November 21 (tomorrow!) On the agenda, we have two related items:
As Chairman Wheeler outlines in this blog post, the goal of these items is to address the big questions that come from the fundamental shift away from traditional telephone technology to our next generation phone system. Wheeler also previewed a bunch of this in speeches last fall, not that anyone paid much attention.
More below . . .
As we have seen over the last several years, the shift in technology brings both enormous benefits, but also many new challenges. IP technologies allow providers to break up and disrupt the traditionally supply chain so they can do things cheaper. IP technologies allow us to introduce competition and innovation that improve service and drive down costs. But, at the same time, these very strengths can create problems. The ability to break up call routing and arbitrage price with “least cost routers” created the rural call completion problem. The introduction of 3rd party vendors into the 911 system drives down costs, but it has increased the number and severity of 911 outages by increasing national reliance on a handful of systems with no single party ultimately responsible for making sure the system works reliably.
Further, as we have seen on Fire Island after Hurricane Sandy, and as my employer Public Knowledge and other public interest groups documented in this letter last May, the lack of any guidance or oversight by the FCC has not resulted in smooth sailing for consumers. Some of the more extreme Libertarian techno-enthusiasts have even gone so far as to argue that concerns for consumer welfare are (and I am not making this quote up) “using consumers as human shields.” Fortunately, the FCC appears poised to reject this extremist view and the phone transition will not, as some have called for, create a regulation free zone where consumers have no rights and where things like “reliability” are relegated to nostalgic reminiscences of a bygone age.
I will also note that this is a vindication for both AT&T and for engaging with AT&T. As I have observed before, I don’t need AT&T to lose for consumers to win. AT&T wants (and needs) a clear way forward to upgrade its system. I want AT&T to upgrade its system so the can compete with Comcast and Google Fiber and keep them on their game — forcing them to offer better services at lower prices. That’s how this whole competition thing is supposed to work, remember.
Sure, AT&T would like as little oversight as possible, whereas I want a level of oversight that will keep AT&T honest and force it to be more cautious about things like 911 reliability. But at heart, we actually want the same thing — for AT&T to spend a butt-load of money upgrading its systems so it can provide better products and service to consumers and make even BIGGER buttloads of money (because we like Big Buttloads of Money and cannot lie).
I don’t expect AT&T to be entirely happy with the outcome tomorrow, but I don’t expect them to be terribly unhappy either. Which is all to the good. Because I also expect that COMPTEL and other competitors will have plenty to cheer about because while AT&T is getting a lot of what they want, they aren’t getting everything they want. I also don’t expect any of the cynics to be swayed. Everyone who was utterly convinced in 2012 when we started on this path that we’d never see the FCC take this level of interest in oversight of the transition and that AT&t had a glide path to total deregulation will still believe the fix is in and engagement is a waste of time. Nor do I want to pretend that everything ends with tomorrow’s Order. It’s mostly about framing the questions and creating the checklist for AT&T (and other traditional phone companies) to shut off their traditional phone systems and shift to new technologies, rather than actually setting the rules of the road.
But critically, we are having this debate under a framework of values that passed in a 5-0 bipartisan vote last January that measures success by how well the transition continues to provide service to all Americans, maintains vital consumer protections, provides life-saving public safety services, and fosters competition. We are not having this debate in a framework that measures success by how much we “deregulated” and which compares consumer protection regulation to terrorists using “human shields.”
So let me repeat. Chairman Wheeler and the FCC are poised to do something really big and really good for consumers and for competition tomorrow. You can watch the FCC’s meeting at 10:30 a.m. at this link here. It doesn’t take anything away from net neutrality to stop a minute and acknowledge when the FCC does something really big and really good.
Stay tuned . . . .