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The IP Transition: Starting Now

by: Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman

November 19, 2013

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

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.

But the future of networks can be hard to see, especially in moments of great change. When Alexander Graham Bell offered Western Union all rights to his telephone patents in 1876, the response was a curt dismissal. A Western Union memorandum concluded that “[t]his ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”

The way forward is to encourage technological change while preserving the attributes of network services that customers have come to expect – that set of values we have begun to call the Network Compact.

In this we are aided by those who are making the changes and those who are observing its impact. Almost a year ago, AT&T and NTCA asked the Commission to begin proceedings to examine the impact of network change on customers. The Commission sought comments on those proposals and expanded the scope of its examination with the creation by Chairman Genachowski of the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force, which issued a further Public Notice in May. To that, and the earlier proceedings, the Commission has received more than 400 comments, letters, and presentations from companies and organizations, including incumbent carriers; rural carriers; competitive carriers; cable companies; wireless providers; VoIP providers; federal, state and local government entities; telecommunications equipment manufacturers and service providers; public safety entities; and public interest organizations.

We have listened, and now it is the time to act. In this, I agree with my Commission colleagues.

Commissioner Pai, for example, has said that the Commission should “embrace the future by expediting the IP Transition” and he has reminded us – in the words of Albert Einstein – that a “pretty experiment is in itself often more valuable than twenty formulae extracted from our minds.” He is right.

Commissioner Rosenworcel has told us that “[a]s we develop a new policy framework for IP networks, we must keep in mind the four enduring values that have always informed communications law — public safety, universal access, competition, and consumer protection.” She is right, and those principles will guide us in our work as we ensure the continuation of the Network Compact.

Commissioner Clyburn has called upon the Commission “to carefully examine and collect data on the impact of technology transitions on consumers, public safety and competition.” She is right, and this too, I propose to do.

Commissioner O’Rielly and I are the new kids on the block. With the Commission now at full force, it is time to act with dispatch.

At next month’s Commission meeting on December 12, the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force will present a status update with the expectation that the January meeting will include consideration of an Order for immediate action. That Order should include recommendations to the Commission on how best to: (i) obtain comment on and begin a diverse set of experiments that will allow the Commission and the public to observe the impact on consumers and businesses of such transitions (including consideration of AT&T’s proposed trials); (ii) collect data that will supplement the lessons learned from the experiments, and (iii) initiate a process for Commission consideration of legal, policy, and technical issues that would not neatly fit within the experiments, with a game plan for efficiently managing the various adjudications and rulemakings that, together, will constitute our IP transition agenda.

The draft Order should include recommendations to the Commission on how best to speed the initiation of experiments and assess, monitor, measure, and analyze their outcomes. How consumers are informed and protected should be a major component. In addition, the Order should explain how the Commission can best obtain accurate and useful information about the technology transition from multiple resources that could include collaboration with other federal, state, and tribal agencies, public input through crowdsourcing, and leveraging outside expertise and advisors. And it should set forth the best process that the Commission can initiate so that, in parallel, it may decide the legal and policy questions raised by this network revolution.

There is much to do. The table has been set by previous decisions and inputs. The time to act starts now.

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