Technology Transition to All-IP Networks


Demand for broadband and data-intensive uses of the nation’s communications networks has grown. Traditional landline telephone companies have responded by migrating their copper wire infrastructure to “internet protocol” (IP) fiber or cable infrastructure. The new infrastructure has greater capacity than older technology. This allows companies now to provide primarily broadband service. Voice service (sometimes known as “Voice over Internet Protocol” or VoIP) is offered as an add-on. This technology transition is happening 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. However, if the copper infrastructure is not appropriately maintained, the quality of basic phone service will go down.

One unique characteristic of traditional phone service is that it usually supplies its own power source. Because of this, traditional phone service will work even when the power is out. The new infrastructure is dependent on electricity unless there is a backup battery.

As the transition from copper lines to IP continues, new regulations are needed. Universal service, access to 911, and basic oversight functions must be ensured. These aspects have been protected by long-established consumer protections and public-interest principles. But large phone companies have argued that they will no longer be necessary after the transition. Eliminating consumer protections could endanger vital communications services. Essential service could become unaffordable, unreliable, or unavailable altogether.

Local telephone companies are redesigning the voice network so that it can also send high-speed data and video. This expensive redesign investment is unnecessary for basic voice service. And local telephone companies are attempting to shift its cost onto residential ratepayers, including those who buy only basic phone service. This threatens the affordability of basic telephone service.



Protecting consumers in the transition

Policymakers should ensure that the ongoing transition to IP-based services results in high-quality, reliable, and affordable communications services for all consumers. This should be the case regardless of the technology platform that carriers use to deliver the services. Policymakers should ensure that all services share fairly in the allocation of common costs. No service should bear an unfair share of the cost to build and maintain the network.

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.

All consumers should have access to high-quality, reliable, and affordable essential communications services, even when 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.

They should also have access to redress.

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.

Reliable telecommunications (Federal, State) 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. (See also Consumer Protections, Service Quality, and Reliability section of this chapter).

Policymakers should 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.