FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated a new proposal today to further improve the state of U.S. telecommunications services. Although this proposal is much more subtle than the radical Open Internet legislation that the Commission earlier drafted, it still targets important factors for upgrading telecommunications infrastructure.
Protect Emergency Calling While Promoting Consumer Choices
Wheeler clearly wants U.S. telecoms to completely move away from copper-based telecommunications infrastructure. Today, other technologies such as fiber optic cables can provide vastly greater performance, and they're also cheaper to maintain. One of the few problems with the technology is that it lacks the capability to carry electrical current through the system.
This might sound unimportant, but imagine that a major storm comes through your area, knocking out cell phone towers and causing power outages along its way. If you needed to call for help for some reason, with the current system in place you could pick up any standard phone and make the call. This is possible because the telephone lines provide electrical current to power your phone, and so long as the line is still connected, it will continue to work.
With fiber optic, there is no electrical current flowing through the line -- so no power, no phone. This realization prompted the first part of Wheeler's proposal: an emergency backup power service for just such emergencies.
This service would be optional for consumers, but it should be available from at least one service provider in an area. If the company providing the phone service is incapable of providing the service, it will be required to offer customers backup power options from third-party service providers.
Ideally, the FCC wants users to have several options for this service, and to encourage competition, all companies that provide this service would be required to fully disclose key information about its abilities and limitations.
Inform And Protect Consumers As Networks Change
The primary aspect of this section of the proposal is the retirement of old copper-based networks. Service providers have begun taking greater action to upgrade their networks following the Open Internet legislation, but the FCC wants to better regulate this, too.
First, users must be notified at least three months prior to the retirement of a copper-based network. This is an important measure, as consumers will likely experience frequent service outages while the networks are being replaced. Service providers are permitted to upgrade to newer facilities so long as it does not result in a fritz [The editor-in-chief is disgusted with that wording].
Wheeler took an additional step to define "retirement" as to prevent networks being retired from neglect. In other words, the companies cannot simply keep using a network until it breaks, and then fix it. They must act to improve the network before it reaches a point at which it is not capable of performing the job it was designated for. Sometimes companies will sign up more subscribers in an area than their network can handle, and as a result, users get slower network performance than they paid for. Technically, this would be considered a neglected network by the FCC, as it is incapable of performing the function it was meant for, and will mandate an upgrade.
Preserve Competitive Choices
Fortunately, despite the cost to upgrade the networks, consumers don't have to worry about their cost of service rising. The final tenet of this proposal requires carriers to maintain competitive choices for users. The rates, terms and conditions for service on the new networks must be comparable to those of the legacy networks.
This would be an interim measure, however, as the FCC is developing a new system for more broadly evaluating these factors.
Some carriers only sell network service to other carriers, and do not directly service end users. Wheeler made it a point to mention that if these carriers wish to discontinue their service rather than adhere to these new regulations, then they must follow the statutory process for discontinuance if the removal of said service will negatively impact retail users.
The Vote Is Coming
Although these regulations are less radical than the Open Internet legislation passed a few months ago, it still represents a rather firm push by the FCC to encourage ISPs to upgrade the telecommunications networks in the U.S. Some have already began upgrading their networks, but clearly Wheeler won't be satisfied until our nation can once again compete with the fastest networks in the world.
The vote over this proposal is scheduled for the FCC open meeting on August 6.