The IP Transition: What is it and what the debate is about

The Federal Communications Commission Chairman today said that the Commission will open a proceeding in January to lay out how the nation will graduate from the old copper telephone networks to the digital and IP-based networks. This is a process that began with broadband networks and has gathered steam as Americans abandoned copper landlines and embraced voice-over-IP services.

Five years ago I laid out AT&T’s arguments in favor of killing its obligations to the copper telephone network, an argument that grows stronger with time. Verizon’s efforts to replace the damaged copper network from Hurricane Sandy with wireless are another example of a carrier trying to move from the copper age into the digital age. The outcry that followed Verizon’s move is why the FCC has to act.

The carriers don’t want to have to operate old-school networks that are more expensive to maintain and don’t offer the flexibility that a modern IP network can provide. However, as the FCC settles in to discuss this transition, its worth understanding what it means. From Wheeler’s blog post:

This is what I have called the Fourth Network Revolution, and it is a good thing. History has shown that new networks catalyze innovation, investment, ideas, and ingenuity. Their spillover effects can transform society – think of the creation of industrial organizations and the standardized time zones that followed in the wake of the railroad and telegraph.

Wheeler can call it the Fourth Network Revolution or whatever he wants. The transition is already happening, it’s the FCC’s job to figure out how to do this without causing a loss of access and problems for millions of Americans who still rely on the copper network. It also means we need to ensure that cellular and VoIP 9-1-1 actually gets help to people when they need it and that VoIP services are reliable in a crisis. It also means that customers have access to a voice network even if they are in rural America and that access shouldn’t come with expensive strings attached.

Wheeler calls this the network compact, but the fight over the next few months will be about what that compact means — the nitty gritty details. And frankly, there will be problems with this transition. Even the transition to digital television that netted America the 700 MHz spectrum that once delivered over the air television and now is part of Verizon and AT&T’s 4G networks, caused problems. For example, I can no longer get basic TV service — a problem for millions of other Americans.

And the copper network is still very much used. From a story a year ago:

And if you think that the world has already gone VoIP, you’re wrong. The FCC counted 192 million circuit-switched lines in 2001. By mid-2011,there were still 112 million lines. Because of the prevalence of the original network, most calls made still touch the original copper network at some point. Even your cell phone calls.

This is a logical transition, and I cannot fault the carriers for wanting to get out of their cumbersome and expensive old-school networks. But the fight ahead of Wheeler and U.S. consumers is about ensuring that this transition to an all-IP infrastructure hurts the fewest people or at least only the people who are best able to absorb the cost of the shift. So as the FCC sets itself up to review the data and unveil its plan, the core of this issue is figuring out how we get from the analog era to the digital one without leaving a lot of folks behind.

But most people will just say it’s about copper landlines.