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FCC honcho: Shifting our crusty phone network to IP packets starts now

'A telephone call is the same as Angry Birds'

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CES 2014 Although many, including telecom giant AT&T, may be of the opinion that the FCC has been dragging its feet on the transition from a time-division multiplexing (TDM) public phone network to an all IP system, Commission chairman Tom Wheeler says that efforts to define the new system will begin in earnest later this month.

Speaking in a one-to-one conversation with Consumer Electronics Association headman Gary Shapiro at CES 2014 in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Wheeler said that America's TDM network was outdated, and that a move to digital all-Internet Protocol network was inevitable.

"The reality is that we've been working on analog TDM-switch communications networks since Bell – actually, since Morse," the FCC boss said. "And now everything is going to IP, and IP has incredible advantages."

Those advantages, he explained, include the fact that not only is IP less expensive and more flexible, but it also eliminates all the various "silos" of use cases, such as voice, video, data, and the like. In an all-IP network, a packet is a packet is a packet.

"A telephone call is the same as Angry Birds," he said.

However, the industry can't simply switch over from analog to digital without other effects, in terms of both service and regulatory oversight.

"And the question becomes," Wheeler continued, "how do you make sure that the transition to the new technology maintains the kinds of things that consumers have always had a right to expect from the networks. And we've begun to call this the 'Network Compact'."

This Compact, he said, has developed over the past hundred years of telephone service, and it's the FCC's job to ensure that it's not broken during the IP-transition – as much as some telecoms would like to have free rein in the emerging digital wonderland.

In November 2012, AT&T filed a petition [PDF] with the FCC, asking the watchdog to identify the outlines of the IP transition.

Wheeler said there will be a number of trials to determine the impact of the transition to an all-IP network. Noting that some have described these as technology trials, he said that such a designation would be incorrect.

"I don't think we need to know how to run IP networks – I think that's pretty well figured out," he said.

He also dismissed the suggestion by some that the FCC conducts policy trials. "I think we're really talking about values trials," he said. "I think the question is how, when we move from the 19th-century technology to the 21st-century technology, that we make sure we bring along with it all of the values that consumers have had an expectation of."

Those values span a wide range of aspects. Wheeler mentioned operational values, giving examples of access, interconnection, public safety, and national security.

"Access has inside it a myriad of topics," he said. "If I am using an analog connection for my burglar alarm, my smoke alarm, what happens? My home FAX, how do I deal with it?"

To get the ball rolling on this process, on January 30 the FCC will propose a schedule that will – "in May, hopefully" – result in the opportunity for companies to tell the Commission that they want to run trials with subsets of their customers.

"And we're going to say, 'Here's the kinds of thing you ought to be looking at in your trial. And here's how you want to measure the impact of the trial'," he said. These trials, Wheeler added, will move the industry down the path to a fully IP future.

"I think inexorably we're heading there," he said. ®

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