AT&T's tests of all-IP wire centers in rural Alabama and suburban Florida, announced earlier today in an AT&T public policy blog and a Washington, D.C., press briefing, may show how consumers and emergency services will function without traditional switched voice. However, it may not reveal much about the competitive landscape.
The tests are in keeping with what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asked for as it tries to pilot this network transition and determine how voice regulations should be eased or changed. (See FCC Sets IP Transformation Pilots.)
AT&T's (AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)) test will eliminate circuit-switched voice service in the affected wire centers, something AT&T says 70% of its customers in 22 states have already done, either by cutting the cord and going wireless or choosing to use voice over IP instead of traditional telephony. That shift in customer choice is one of the arguments AT&T is making for eliminating traditional voice switches and changing regulations that grew out of that era. (See FCC VoIP Ruling Bound to Disappoint Someone.)
The two areas in which AT&T will conduct its tests are hardly hotbeds of competition. Carbon Hill, Ala., is described as a relatively poor rural town of 2,000 and Delray Beach, Fla., is a suburb of 60,000, including many seniors. In Carbon Hill, about 40% of residents will be able to choose their replacement voice service -- either AT&T's U-verse broadband offering, which is VoIP, or a 4G home wireless service. Those outside the U-verse footprint, which is more than half, will only be able to get the wireless service. In addition, about 4% of residents won't have access to either, but AT&T thinks they'll have other voice options, and has pledged not to shut off service until they do. In Delray Beach, a substantial number of residents already have Comcast VoIP, and will have both AT&T voice options.
From this population, the FCC may be able to discern the impact on consumers, such as whether an in-home wireless option delivers the quality consumers need and whether essential services such as 911 continue to function as needed. It's not likely to determine, however, whether issues such as interconnection of competitive carriers will be impacted.
That's like why Incompas CEO Chip Pickering described AT&T's test as "narrow and very limited," and used a prepared statement to continue to push the point that wholesale access rules -- which allow competitors to connect to AT&T's network -- remain essential.
Granted, the FCC has to put consumer concerns first, but as we are learning where broadband service is concerned, the health of competition does impact consumers. Here's hoping the FCC takes what it can from these trials but doesn't stop there.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading
Editor's note: The original version of this blog contained an inaccurate reference to Comptel, the equipment vendor. Chip Pickering is CEO of Comptel, the association of competitive carriers and is speaking for that organization.