October 31, 2014 - 3:19 pm
By Tom Wheeler | FCC Chairman

This past January, the Commission unanimously adopted an order to speed technology transitions for the benefit of consumers.  How?  By assuring that technology transitions bring innovation while protecting the enduring values that consumers have come to expect from their networks, including public safety, consumer protection and competition.

The time has come to put those principles into practice. Today, I am circulating to my fellow Commissioners two items that take up the task of encouraging technology transitions while protecting those core values.

Tremendous benefits can be realized by the transition of public safety to IP-based networks. For example, IP-based networks will enable 911 call centers to receive a greater range of information – such as text, video, and data from vehicle crash sensors – to better support emergency response.

But the introduction of new technologies has also introduced new vulnerabilities that cannot be ignored. We have seen a spike in so-called “sunny day” outages, when failure comes from the failure of software or databases and not from natural disasters. As the Public Safety Bureau reported to the Commission earlier this month, a “sunny day” outage this past April left consumers in 7 states without 911 service for up to 6 hours.  Some 6,600 911 calls were not completed during that time.  This is simply unacceptable.

A single 911 call today can involve multiple companies operating in multiple locations across the country, and that means a failure in one place can leave people without 911 service across multiple states, indeed across the nation. 

That’s why I am proposing action to protect 911 service as the tech transitions move forward. The proposal I’ve sent my colleagues proposes a 911 governance structure designed to ensure the technology transitions are managed in a way that maximizes the availability, reliability, and resiliency of 911 networks, as well as the accountability of all participants in the 911-call completion process.

The second item concerns the so-called “retirement” of legacy networks. New IP-based networks, made of fiber for example, have brought great new choices to millions of Americans. But millions of American homes continue to choose traditional, reliable, copper networks for voice communication. Now, we are close to a tipping point, what the Commission in January unanimously described as “a point where the adoption of new communications technologies reaches a critical mass and most providers wish to cease offering legacy services.”

So the item I am circulating proposes to update the Commission’s rules that govern the retirement of legacy networks, and the discontinuance of traditional services.

To safeguard public safety, my proposals would take steps to ensure that consumers using these next generation networks and services – whether cable coax or telecommunications fiber – can reach 911 and other emergency services even when the power goes out.

To protect consumers, I propose new transparency measures to ensure that they know what is happening to their voice service when carriers propose to take it away – and what they can do about it. This is not a hypothetical issue: the proposal to end traditional service in Fire Island, New York after Hurricane Sandy damaged the copper phone lines sparked substantial public concern – and rightly so.

To protect competition, this item includes proposals to ensure that small- and medium-sized businesses do not have the benefits of competition yanked away from them.  The mere change of a network facility or discontinuance of a legacy service should not deprive consumers or businesses of competitive choices.  That would only lead to higher telecommunications prices that are passed along to consumers.

The two items for the November meeting join two other tech transition items that have been submitted to the full Commission. Earlier this week, I circulated a proposal to update the Commission’s rules to give video providers who operate over the Internet – or any other method of transmission – the same access to programming that cable and satellite operators have. This change should ultimately give consumers more options to buy the programming they want.

Those same principles apply in the context of an item I circulated last week on an issue commonly referred to as “VoIP symmetry.” The notion is simple –interconnected VOIP is functionally equivalent to traditional voice service, and the Commission’s rules that govern the way communications companies pay each other to complete voice calls must reflect that. Technology-neutral rules are best. 

All four items turn on simple precepts that go to the heart of the public interest: Technology transitions will be speeded by technology-neutral rules that promote, preserve, and protect the enduring values that consumers have rightly come to expect, and chief among them is the ability to reach emergency responders and the ability to choose products and services in a competitive market.  Technology must improve; these values must be protected; these items demonstrate how both can go hand-in-hand.