July 10, 2015 - 11:30 am
By Tom Wheeler | FCC Chairman

The transition to efficient, modern communications networks is bringing new and innovative services to consumers and businesses. The Commission’s approach to these technology transitions is simple: the shift to next-generation fiber and IP-based networks from analog switch- and copper-based networks is good and should be encouraged. But advances in technology will never justify abandonment of the core values that define the relationship between Americans and the networks they use to communicate.                               

After an open, rigorous process, I will be circulating to my fellow Commissioners an item that would update the FCC’s rules to help deliver the promise of dynamic new networks, provide clear rules of the road for network operators, and preserve our core values, including protecting consumers and promoting competition and public safety.

Public safety, in particular, offers a vivid example of how technology transitions are concurrently creating both new opportunities and new challenges. IP-based networks enable 911 call centers to receive a greater range of information – such as text and video – so they can better support first responders in an emergency. However, IP-based home voice services are more vulnerable to outages during emergencies than their copper predecessors. While traditional, copper-based landline home phone service typically works during electric outages because they carry their own power, IP-based substitutes usually require an independent source of power.  This means they need backup power to keep operating.

Consumers shouldn’t have to accept decreased phone service reliability as a price of progress; they should have information and tools necessary to maintain available communications during emergencies. That’s why our new proposed rules would require providers of IP-based phone services to offer consumers the option to buy backup power. And I would stress the word option. It would be up to consumers to make the best choice for themselves. But to ensure that consumers understand their options, providers would be required to inform customers about service limitations from electricity outages and how to minimize those risks through backup power.

Empowering consumers with information is a central theme of our new proposed rules. Although these new networks have brought new choices for consumers, millions of American homes and businesses continue to choose traditional, reliable copper networks for voice communications. We propose requiring that consumers be notified before the copper networks that serve their homes and businesses are retired. This increased transparency will help ensure that new types of services meet the needs of consumers before legacy services are removed.

Traditional copper network infrastructure has also been a mainstay of competitive service purchased wholesale from the incumbent telcos by competitive providers and retailed to businesses, schools, health-care facilities, and other small- and medium-sized institutions. The competitive providers that buy such capacityserve hundreds of thousands of businesses and other non-residential enterprises at competitive rates, often offering customized services not necessarily offered by larger incumbents. Yet competitive carriers and the customers that depend on them face uncertainty if the incumbent companies no longer provide the kinds of wholesale services that are key to this competitionmerely because of a change in the technology they use to deliver the service.

To address this, the item would require that replacement services be offered to competitive providers at rates, terms and conditions that are reasonably comparable to those of the legacy networks. This would be an interim solution pending the completion of a broader wholesale access proceeding. Bottom line: there has been competition for wholesale services before the technology transitions, and there will be competition in this market after these transitions.

Again, we want to facilitate the transition to IP networks, which is why, consistent with longstanding policy, the proposed rules would NOT require FCC approval before carriers retire copper networks, as long as no service is discontinued, reduced or impaired.

However, if a service is discontinued, reduced or impaired, Congress has mandated in section 214 of the Communications Act that FCC approval is required. Just as we want to arm consumers with information, we believe in providing greater clarity for providers, and the fact is that the Commission has not codified the criteria used to evaluate and compare replacement and legacy services. In a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, we propose fixing this problem by clarifying the standards we would use as part of our review, and we seek more focused comment on the specific criteria to be used.

The Commission is committed to seizing the opportunities of the technology transitions and unleashing new waves of innovation and consumer benefits. These clear rules of the road will give providers the certainty they need to invest, while protecting consumers, competition and public safety in this time of change.