FCC letting phone carriers begin to replace traditional phone system entirely over IP networks

01/30/2014 - 00:00

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to take its first major step toward letting AT&T and other carriers replace the country's traditional phone system with one that works entirely over Internet Protocol networks.

AT&T has argued that the technology transition should be accompanied by deregulation that would strip the company of most of its monopoly-era obligations. AT&T likely won't get everything it wants, though. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog post last November that he intends to "ensure the continuation of the Network Compact" with universal service for all Americans, consumer protections, public safety services, and competition.

In other words, AT&T can't stop maintaining the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) without a plan to preserve current service levels. This is not as simple as just making sure phone calls get through, although solving therural call completion problem by itself is a challenge. It also means maintaining access to 911 services, fire alarms, fax machines, medical alert systems, anything that relies on the phone network.

Not everything is to be decided this week. The FCC vote is on an AT&T petition to launch customer trials of new IP-based networks. While AT&T's petition is expected to be granted, the FCC's proposed order is written to ensure continuation of the four values (universal service, consumer protection, public safety, and competition) as Wheeler emphasized, an FCC official told Ars on condition that he not be named.

AT&T is "getting what they want. They're not getting it exactly the way they want it," Harold Feld, senior VP of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars. Feld has submitted filings in theFCC's IP transition proceeding.

The trials, Feld said, will provide the first real-world data needed to help the FCC set baseline technical standards that carriers would have to meet after the PSTN is shut off.

"In order to turn off the existing phone service you have to show that it's not going to impair service to the community," Feld said. "How do you measure that? The FCC doesn't have any measurements for that right now."

Ultimately, AT&T wants to move everything to IP and stop maintaining the PSTN by roughly 2020. In some areas where wired infrastructure is difficult to maintain, AT&T wants to deploy wireless-only services. The company did not provide any comment to Ars in advance of today's vote.