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The Network Technology Transitions: Enormous Opportunities, Some Key Challenges

by: Sean Lev, General Counsel and Interim Director, Technology Transitions Policy Task Force

April 24, 2013 - 01:00 PM

The Technology Transitions Policy Task Force held its first workshop on March 18th.  We had many distinguished panelists—many of whom came from far outside the Beltway—and we are very grateful for their time and efforts.

As we had hoped, we learned many significant things from the discussion at the workshop that help us understand the technological transitions that are the focus of this Task Force—from TDM to IP, from copper to fiber, and from wireline to greater use of wireless networks.  I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight a few of the key takeaways.

First, we focused on capabilities and limitations of new and emerging technologies.  For example, panelists discussed MegaMIMO and its potential for stitching together overlapping wireless cells to increase data speeds for end users.  We also reviewed the cable industry’s DOCSIS 3.1 standard and its potential for serving businesses and consumers with speeds up to 1Gbps.  The panel also discussed how existing copper wires can provide significantly higher speed services through VDSL2 technology.  We also heard more about current trends in business voice and broadband—including the vociferous demand for wireless services among enterprise customers and the fixed-mobile convergence that IP-enabled networks will enable for businesses. At the same time, panelists emphasized that even with these technological evolutions that enable higher speeds over copper, there are limits to the technology, and copper may not be sufficient to meet broadband demand indefinitely. These and other  wired and wireless capabilities—and the financial and technical prerequisites for bringing those capacities to consumers—are important for us to keep in mind as we take a hard look at what these technologies mean for Commission policy.

Second, we gathered some good data about what decisions consumers are making as they adopt voice and broadband services.  The data demonstrate dramatically that patterns of adoption vary significantly, depending on facts such as age, urban or rural residence, culture, and wealth.  For example, we heard that 46.5% of Hispanics use wireless-only voice service—more than the national average.  And, wireless-only adults 65 and older have doubled between 2009 and 2012.  We also heard that rural uptake of broadband lags behind urban uptake by 10%, and that rural households are much more likely to rely on dial-up or satellite Internet than urban users are.  Finally, we heard that 37.5% of people with disabilities have broadband at home, while the national average is 66%.  We need to consider these and other variations based on population density, age, and other factors in coming up with sound policies that will bring broadband benefits to all Americans.  At the same time, we heard that the quality of the data is not as good as it might be.  Sometimes, the information may be skewed by the questions and assumptions in the survey. Also, some data are hard to get because most data collections are conducted in English, leaving out many who don’t speak English fluently.

Finally, a key thing we heard is that the technology transitions are not happening overnight and that economic necessity alone, not regulation, will require providers to support both existing legacy technologies and new ones for a significant time.  As one of the panelists said, “networks are like oil tankers.”  As with turning such a massive ship, technological transitions within the network take time. It’s an iterative process, with the timing and pace of the technology transitions within a network from copper to fiber, TDM to IP, driven by business decisions.  Because network upgrades hold the promise of significant consumer benefits, we should do everything we can to speed the way while protecting consumers, competition, and public safety.  But we also need to be aware that providers aren’t retiring all their legacy equipment immediately – instead, they are generally swapping out individual pieces of equipment on independent timescales, and they are doing so in some places, but not others. The pace of these technology transitions differs among providers, with some further along in the transition from TDM to IP than others.  In sum, the workshop strongly indicated that, for economic reasons, wireline network providers will generally continue to use copper and TDM for the next 5, 8, or 10 years.  That is important to know as we consider the proper regulatory response to these changes.

What was resoundingly clear by the end of the workshop is that these transitions present enormous opportunities and some key challenges. At the Commission, we are committed to working with stakeholders to solve these challenges in ways that are grounded in solid data and analysis, and that protect consumers, enhance competition, preserve and advance public safety, and speed broadband access for all Americans, both rural and urban.

If you are interested in learning more about the workshop, you can read the transcript and the many fine presentations made by the distinguished panelists.

Updated: May 8, 2013 - 11:38 AM
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