The FCC’s recent order for the management of experiments to spur a successful PSTN-to-IP transition officially kicks off an ambitious agenda for the coming months.
As the industry and consumers continue to press ahead with greater adoption of Internet Protocol technology all the time, it has become apparent that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must actively balance the drive to innovate with protection for consumers. A speedy yet orderly transition to an all-IP, competitive environment is what providers and end-users alike will benefit from most.
With this target in sight, the FCC has set out to conduct experiments and data collection that will enable it to have greater visibility into the inner workings of IP networks and services. The experiments are designed to highlight real-world events but in a relatively controlled setting. In order to advance its understanding of technological details, the Commission has asked for proposals to conduct discrete IP service-based experiments as well as experiments and research targeted at studying network values. As the experiments are conducted, the Commission is emphasizing that consumers must not be harmed in the process. Therefore, emergency services and disability access support will remain paramount.
As we’ve seen in the context of the non-carrier numbering trials, the "success" of an experiment may be very much in the eyes of the beholder. However, at a high level at least, the FCC has established some clear objective goals to aim for, and success should be measured by how much it learns in the process. The Commission's bold move to endorse experimentation is laudable. Further, it appears it also has a solid roadmap to follow along the way.
As Chairman Wheeler stated in adopting the IP Transition Order: “We favor technological innovation. And… we affirm the enduring values of the Network Compact: universal service, public safety, competition, and consumer protection.” As long as the Commission remains true to these guiding principles, end-users should benefit immensely.
Beyond learning from experimentation, success will come from applying the learnings to the regulatory framework that ultimately guides the marketplace. Below we outline some essential outcomes that may become the true objective measures of the FCC’s performance:
Relevant data sets: The first step is to gather useful and relevant data. Then, once gathered, it will need to be analyzed carefully. Finally, the analysis that is done must be translated into concrete applications in the marketplace. If not, then we are wasting our time. Within each of these categories of the process there are potential pitfalls. For example, at the outset -- for data to be useful and relevant it will need to be scalable but without manipulating the results. High volume and the ability to scale the results will be a critical outcome of the trial.
Ability to connect the dots: A structure that can be digested and followed by a diverse set of consumers will be critical. This is true for the FCC as it conducts the process as well as for the communications industry as a whole. With separate trials for different types of companies (think: wireless carriers and cable companies), it is difficult to understand how they’re interrelated and can all work together across telecom segments. Right now, there are regulatory incentives that cause players to aggressively work to position themselves in desired service categories. Ultimately, however, for end-users to benefit, the FCC should guard against this sort of regulatory arbitrage. Therefore, before major reform is instituted we’ll need to understand the interrelatedness of the issues at hand. Otherwise, unintended consequences will proliferate.
Encouraging innovation: The governing bodies managing the trial need to remain supportive of new ideas, allowing consumers to dictate what they like and what works. If not, then we won’t reach the full potential of IP-based communication, stifling the innovation and new methods of communications before they ever get a chance to blossom.
High-definition, not standard-definition: The value proposition of a transitioned number opens up a lot of opportunity for better communication, rich media, and HD voice. Transitioning to IP without factoring in HD voice will stifle opportunities and innovative progress. The inherent slowness to open up the barrier won’t be changed overnight -- for many years, we will still need to make calls into the public switched telephone network (PSTN). In an IP world, it’s easier to enable HD experiences for extraordinary human interactions. As the PSTN continues to die, how fast it does so will be the proof of HD’s success.
Emergency services and consumer protections: Public safety features are still an important concern, though it will be a longer, more difficult process to enable as a fully functioning IP-based infrastructure. Of course, it is also a necessity, so a full transition will not be possible until everything that is currently possible for emergency communications on the PSTN -- both within public safety answering points and from the underlying phone company -- is also possible in an IP-based environment. Small steps to enable this may happen in 2014, but we can’t predict when emergency communications will be fully transitioned.
That being said, once it is fully transitioned, it opens the door to more much more flexible emergency communications, including even greater location accuracy, innovative features such as text-to-911, and emergency video calling. All of the regulation, possibilities, and steps that need to be taken to enable IP-based 911 cannot be fully explained in a short paragraph, but it is important to address that this will be a major process to pay close attention to during the trial.
IP communications create opportunities for innovation that consumers are already craving -- and OTT-based communications are feeding those cravings. While some carriers continue to drag their feet to switch from the PSTN, consumers are finding ways around traditional carrier services. Once you’ve lost the consumers, it is difficult to win them back, even after the IP transition.
Thus our request of the FCC is to focus the industry in a direction that avoids barriers that delay consumers from availing themselves of the full benefit of the IP transition -- and instead move aggressively ahead on an ambitious transition path as rapidly as possible.
— Steve Leonard, EVP and General Manager, Bandwidth