FCC Chairman Rebuild US Phone System
November 21, 2013

FCC Chairman Calls For Evolution Of Antiquated US Phone System

Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

On Tuesdays Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), called for a complete rebuild of the American telephone system. Wheeler joined the FCC as chairman earlier this month, replacing Julius Genachowski.

In a post this week on the FCC’s blog, Wheeler called for changes that would, in essence, completely rebuild the current century-old telephone system using Internet technology.

“Our communications networks are changing – and fast. What some call the ‘IP transition’ is really a series of transitions; a multifaceted revolution that advances as the packets of Internet Protocol (IP)-based communication replace the digital stream of bits and analog frequency waves,” Wheeler wrote.

“The impacts on networks have already begun and will be profound. Fiber networks are expanding. Bonding technology is showing interesting possibilities with regard to the nation’s traditional copper infrastructure. Communications protocols are moving from circuit-switched Time-division Multiplexing (or TDM) to IP. And wireless voice and data services are increasingly prevalent, empowering consumers to connect at the place and time of their choosing.”

Wheeler said the agency would begin “a diverse set of experiments” as early as next year that could see the transformation from the existing network of analog switches, circuits and cooper wires to one that transmits phone calls in the same way that Internet data is now moved. This would allow for more information to be transmitted at one time, and could allow for integration of video in phone calls. This is something that is already possible via Internet-based services such as Skype and Vonage.

Currently, most legacy telephone networks still rely on the analog technology, and these are increasingly expensive to maintain. With the increased use of mobile devices as well as Voice Over IP (VoIP) technology, the analog technology and physical switch-based system – which has been increasingly known as the Plain Old Telephone System or POTS – has also seen a decline in use in recent years. It could even be switched off in the not-so-distant future.

Wheeler said that he expects the commission to approve a plan in January, but this could require rewriting legal, policy and technical issues that govern the new telephone systems.

“This is what I have called the Fourth Network Revolution, and it is a good thing,” Wheeler added. “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.”

Such an upgrade to a digital based system might not be without some hurdles. CIO-Today noted, “There is some question as to what the FCC’s authority over an IP-based system actually is, given that it has only limited authority over the Internet. But federal regulations have shaped what we know as the standard phone system, such as guaranteeing there is at least one phone company serving every part of the U.S.”

Consumer protection and public interest groups such as Public Knowledge have already called on the FCC to ensure that some form of telephone service does remain accessible to everyone, while other policy issues and regulations will also need to be considered. This includes how 911 calls can be managed in an IP network and what rules might remain in place that cover minimum service.

For many customers there will be little in the way of a transition period. In addition to Skype and Vonage, IP-based services are already offered to millions of Americas via Verizon's FiOS and AT&T’s U-Verse.