As demand for broadband and data-intensive uses of the nation’s communications networks has grown, some telephone companies have been gradually migrating their networks away from the long-term transmission technology known as TDM (for time-division multiplexing) to IP (Internet Protocol) often provided via a fiber or cable network. This allows the carriers to offer broadband as the primary service, with voice service offered as an “add-on.” At the same time, incumbent local-exchange carriers (ILECs)—especially those with wireless affiliates, such as AT&T and Verizon—are seeking to cut down on the costs of maintaining aging copper facilities, particularly in low-population areas, by migrating customers to service provided over a wireless connection.
Nonetheless, any technology transition will happen gradually. Services provided in whole or in part over the existing copper infrastructure will continue to serve many customers in all parts of the country for years to come if they are appropriately maintained. However, during this technology transition, consumers who continue to be served by traditional copper networks are at risk that local telephone companies will fail to maintain and repair basic phone service.
TDM-based services have traditionally been provided to residential customers over copper wire connections between their homes and the phone company’s local switching location. One unique characteristic of TDM (not present with IP) is that it usually supplies its own power source, so that phone service remains stable even when a customer’s electric power fails. Therefore, it is important that consumers be fully informed about the importance of battery back-up when they migrate from TDM-based service to IP-based service, especially if patterns of extreme weather become more prevalent.
Nothing precludes the ILECs from replacing copper in their networks when it does not affect customers’ service. Federal law only requires ILECs to receive approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for network changes that result in the discontinuance, reduction, or impairment of services. This approval is not required if existing services will continue to be furnished over the modified network. Thus, regulation is not a significant obstacle to the deployment of new technology or advanced services.
In a recent update to its copper retirement rules, the FCC provided ILECs with clear guidelines about when they need to seek preapproval for copper retirements. The FCC sought to “prevent copper facilities from being ‘de facto retired’ without adequate notice to affected persons.” The new rules require 180 days’ notice to interconnecting carriers and 90 days’ notice to affected retail customers. In addition, the FCC made explicit certain consumer protection requirements (such as information regarding back-up power requirements) that an ILEC must comply with when it replaces copper in its network. Subject to these straightforward procedures, an ILEC is free to retire copper.
ILECs’ copper retirement is occurring gradually and in portions of (but not the entirety of) ILECs’ service territories. As ILECs make these transitions, regulatory protections are needed to ensure that the transitions do not jeopardize public safety and voice connections. However, as large phone companies make this technology transition, they have sought to leave behind long-established consumer protections and public-interest principles. The companies have asked regulators to reduce or eliminate rules that ensure universal service, promote competition, and perform basic oversight functions. Their actions raise serious concerns that vital communications services may become unaffordable, unreliable, or unavailable altogether.
Technology Transition to All-IP Networks: Policy
Protecting consumers in the transition
Federal and state policymakers and regulators should ensure that the ongoing transition from traditional wireline telephone services to IP-based services will ultimately result in the delivery of high-quality and affordable communications services to all consumers, regardless of the technology platform that carriers use to deliver the services. This transition should preserve all essential capabilities and functions of the existing network, but also produce demonstrated benefits for residential consumers in the form of new services, better-quality service, and affordable prices.
Federal and state policymakers and regulators should ensure that all consumers continue to have access to essential communications services even when natural or manmade disasters damage communications infrastructure. Telecommunications carriers should be prohibited from permanently replacing networks that have been damaged in a storm or other disaster with technologies that produce lesser levels of service than were provided prior to the disaster.
State policymakers should ensure that all consumers have the right to have their disputes with telecommunications providers heard by an independent state agency that has the authority and expertise to resolve problems fairly and effectively.
Federal and state policymakers should ensure that communications networks function reliably and consistently during favorable weather conditions and emergencies regardless of whether the telecommunications provider offers services over wireless, copper, fiber-optic or some other technology.
Among other goals, policymakers should:
- establish clear network-reliability metrics and standards, monitor and report on service-provider performance, and enforce sanctions and remedial actions if performance falls short; and
- prevent efforts by incumbent telecommunications carriers to dismantle or retire any portion of the copper-wire network if such actions would limit effective competition and customer choice, degrade service, or more generally raise public interest concerns.