Because every American
should have access
to broadband Internet.

The Internet Innovation Alliance is a broad-based coalition of business and non-profit organizations that aim to ensure every American, regardless of race, income or geography, has access to the critical tool that is broadband Internet. The IIA seeks to promote public policies that support equal opportunity for universal broadband availability and adoption so that everyone, everywhere can seize the benefits of the Internet - from education to health care, employment to community building, civic engagement and beyond.

The Podium

Blog posts tagged with 'Rick Boucher'

Monday, April 14

The Man in the Chair

By Brad

At the Washington Post, Cecilia Kang has an extensive profile of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. An excerpt:

“I’m not sitting here sucking eggs,” Wheeler said at his first public meeting in November, a warning shot of what was to come. “I’m looking seriously at these issues.”

Such candor has defied early assumptions about President Obama’s FCC pick. The former lobbyist was pegged by many as a lame-duck regulator, likely to lay low and stick to worker-bee issues.

Instead, the 68-year-old has eagerly grasped a national megaphone on the defining — and the utterly arcane — telecom policy issues of the day.

Kang’s full profile is worth checking out. And for an extensive look at the issues Wheeler’s FCC faces, read our Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher’s op-ed from November for Bloomberg Government.

Tuesday, April 08

Looking Back and Looking Forward: The VIdeo

By Brad

Miss our Internet Academy on the future of America’s telecommunications policy yesterday? We’ve got you covered.

Monday, April 07

Talking Communications Policy

By Brad

Earlier today we held our latest Internet Academy, which featured former House Energy and Commerce Chairmen Rick Boucher and Jack Field discussing the past and future of America’s communications policies. We’ll have archive of the event up soon, but in the meantime, The Hill‘s Julian Hattern has a write-up. Check it out.

Wednesday, March 26

Looking Back and Looking Forward: America’s Communications Policy

By Brad

The last significant revision of the Communications Act occurred in 1996. Since then, innovation and competitive markets have dramatically altered the way consumers receive communications services. While the world of phones, computers, and the Internet has completely changed over the last 18 years, the nation’s telecommunications regulatory framework remains the same.

With the House Committee on Energy and Commerce seeking recommendations on how best to modernize the Communications Act, our next Internet Academy will feature two key architects of the 1996 Act, IIA Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher and former House Energy and Commerce Chairman Jack Fields.

Boucher and Fields will discuss a wide range of policy issues, including:

• The pervasive and rapidly developing role of broadband networks in the delivery of modern communications, in contrast to the market landscape in 1996.

• How Current policy impacts broadband investment.

• The obstacles and opportunities facing lawmakers as they embark on modernizing the legal and regulatory framework that oversees the nation’s communications industry.

• Recommendations to help spur investment and innovation in America’s 21st Century digital economy.

Our Internet Academy will take place on Monday, April 7 at 9:30 am at Rayburn 2322 in Washington, D.C. A continental breakfast will be served. To RSVP or to receive more information about the event, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Monday, March 10

Boucher in Florida

By Brad

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In an op-ed for the Sun-Sentinel in Florida, our Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher breaks down what the FCC’s IP transition test trial for a community in Delray will mean for residents. An excerpt:

You may have heard by now that Kings Point in Delray is one of two communities in the country that soon may get a Federal Communications Commission -sponsored test of a new broadband communications network to replace today’s telephone network.

While some of us may have an idle phone bolted to the wall, that’s no longer the case for the majority of Americans. Two-thirds have fled the outdated, copper-wire network entirely. In fact, only five percent of American households still rely on it exclusively.

The old telephone network, first invented by Alexander Graham Bell, is wearing out. And as with most technology of yesteryear, it has severely limited functions and capabilities.

You can read Boucher’s full op-ed at the Sun-Sentinal.

Friday, February 28

Boucher Gives AT&T-Announced Locations for IP Trials Vote of Confidence

By IIA

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From IIA Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher:

Every month, 450,000 people make the transition from the old circuit-switched network to the new, IP-based world of telecommunications. Two-thirds of Americans have fled the old phone network entirely, and only five percent use it as their sole means of communication. It’s clear that consumers prefer newer products, services, and technologies in place of the old. Just as the telegraph once gave way to the telephone, and analog gave way to digital, so we stand at the threshold of another revolution in communication, as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone network gives way to the advanced IP broadband networks of tomorrow. In fact, by the end of this decade a sunset should occur for the antiquated circuit-switched telephone network.

As a key step in reaching that goal, in its filing today, AT&T has accepted the FCC’s call for the initiation of trials in select local markets where consumers will rapidly be transitioned from the old network to modern broadband communications platforms. The company in its filing underscored a thorough ongoing commitment to the core network values the Commission seeks to promote. Far from being a “regulation-free zone,” the future vision for an all-IP world is one in which communications services are accessible, secure, and reliable. Using the core values of universal service, consumer protection, public safety, reliability, and competition as its guidepost, the FCC can help speed investment in advanced networks that bring the benefits of high-speed broadband to everyone.

During the upcoming trials – to be held under the direct supervision of the FCC – government, consumers, and industry will all work together, in an open and transparent manner, to learn what can go wrong when the consumers who remain on the old telephone network are rapidly transitioned to modern broadband communications. With information from the trials, solutions can be put in place to ensure that the nationwide transition is a success for everyone.  And at this stage and throughout the trials, the traditional phone network will remain in place, providing protections, a kind of safety net, for those who still depend on the old system for essential communications needs.

As we move forward, I’m confident that the IP networks and services to be tested will exceed both consumers’ and the FCC’s expectations for service, reliability, and consumer protection.

Wednesday, February 19

Let’s Get Nerdy – Episode One

By IIA

We’re excited to announce a new video series we’ve put together that we’re calling “Let’s Get Nerdy.” The goal is to take tech policy issues that are currently top of mind in our nation’s capital and explain how they are relevant to Americans across the map. With a series of questions, an expert will guide us through a deep-dive into the topic of the month.

For our first installment, we interviewed a lawmaking legend (who also happens to be our Honorary Chairman), former Congressman Rick Boucher. Congressman Boucher was a key participant in the construction of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and here he answers three questions about a huge initiative being spearheaded by the House Energy & Commerce Committee to update the Telecommunications Act to reflect the technology of today.

Ready to get nerdy? Let’s go!

At the Silicon Flatirons conference, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler shared this excerpt from the book Digital Crossroads. “When, in 1996, Congress last enacted major revisions to the [Telecommunications] Act, it did not clearly foresee the rise of broadband Internet access services, let alone their eventual centrality to all forms of electronic communications.” What did the market look like in 1996, and how has it changed?


In a recent editorial for The Hill newspaper, you pointed out that most consumers — essentially, anyone who has a cellphone or who gets telephone service from a cable provider — have already made the switch to 21st century high-speed broadband networks without government action. What role can Congress and the FCC play to accelerate and complete the so-called IP (or Internet Protocol) Transition?


The IP Transition is fundamental to the mobile revolution of which we’re all a part. Consumers have proven that they have an insatiable thirst for wireless services that run on the limited, invisible airwaves known as spectrum. As it looks to update the Telecommunications Act, what can the House Energy & Commerce Committee do to help ensure that carriers like T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint have the spectrum needed to keep up with consumer demand?


Our thanks to Congressman Boucher for sharing his unique perspective on regulatory modernization as a key architect of the ‘96 Telecommunications Act. Until next time, stay nerdy!

Tuesday, February 11

Small Steps

By Brad

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Any update to the Communications Act will take a while to make happen, especially since — as Julian Hattern for The Hill highlights today — the Senate is unlikely to get started soon:

The Senate won’t be following the House’s lead this year to overhaul the sweeping law regulating the TV, radio and other communications services, which has not been updated since the rapid growth of the Internet.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has begun to probe ways to bring the Communications Act into the 21st Century, but Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said on Tuesday that the Senate Commerce Committee, of which he is a member, probably won’t be following suit in 2014.

I doubt we’ll do anything this year but I know that the House has been saying that they want to open that and certainly we’ll be seeing what they want to do,” said Pryor, chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Communications, at a winter meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Washington.

Still, any step toward updating the relic of an Act is a positive one. As our own Rick Boucher — who played a major part in the last update of the Communications Act — wrote in a recent op-ed for Roll Call. As Boucher wrote:

Today, the FCC is both catching up and leading. It must catch up to the large majority of Americans who have made their own personal transition to smartphones, tablets and other devices that provide 24/7 connectivity to the Internet and its treasure trove of information and entertainment. At the same time, the agency also must lead by joining Congress in crafting an updated regulatory framework that supports continued innovation and network expansion and extending a helping hand to guide the minority of Americans who have not yet joined the digital world.

To complete the journey, Congress and the FCC must clear the road of outdated rules that made sense for the telephone monopoly era of the 20th century but which now slow the shift to the multitasking digital networks of the future. For example, the old rules require local phone companies to invest billions of dollars every year in the old voice telephone network that droves of Americans abandon every day. Every dollar spent on the aging, single-purpose analog phone system consumers are fleeing is one less dollar invested in multifunctional modern digital networks consumers prefer.

Thursday, February 06

Boucher Looks Forward

By Brad

Back in 1996, our Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher played a major role in crafting the Telecommunications Act. For the Act’s 18th anniversary, he penned an op-ed for The Hill arguing that outdated regulations and the shift to broadband-based networks need to be the focus of any Act going forward. As Boucher writes:

The ’96 Act accomplished everything we intended. It unleashed a golden era of competition, service improvements, technological advancements and massive investments in high-speed broadband-capable networks. With the right public policies in place — policies favoring investments and newer technologies consumers want — this golden age will continue for all Americans.

The transition to IP networks, and the policy modernization that will accompany it, represent the largest telecom changes since the ’96 Act. It’s going to be an exciting several years.

Check out Boucher’s full op-ed at The Hill.

Wednesday, February 05

Boucher Talks Digital Networks

By Brad

Our Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher penned an op-ed for Roll Call yesterday examining the FCC’s recent push toward all-digital network technology. Here’s a taste:

Today, the FCC is both catching up and leading. It must catch up to the large majority of Americans who have made their own personal transition to smartphones, tablets and other devices that provide 24/7 connectivity to the Internet and its treasure trove of information and entertainment. At the same time, the agency also must lead by joining Congress in crafting an updated regulatory framework that supports continued innovation and network expansion and extending a helping hand to guide the minority of Americans who have not yet joined the digital world.

To complete the journey, Congress and the FCC must clear the road of outdated rules that made sense for the telephone monopoly era of the 20th century but which now slow the shift to the multitasking digital networks of the future.

Check out Boucher’s full op-ed at Roll Call.

Monday, February 03

Answering Upton and Walden’s Call

By IIA

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Rick Boucher, honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), today released his recommendations on modernization of communications industry regulation, in response to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s request for input on the future of the law. Boucher served for 28 years in the House of Representatives, where he chaired the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet and was a key architect of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

“Since 1996, the way in which consumers receive communications services of all kinds has dramatically transformed,” explained Boucher. “Today’s laws severely lag technological and marketplace advancements—comprehensive statutory telecommunications reform for the 21st Century is vital.”

In December, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton and Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden launched a comprehensive #CommActUpdate, including a series of white papers as the first step toward rewriting the laws governing the communications and technology sector. To read the first white paper released on January 8, visit http://1.usa.gov/1iVVvBE.

During the last significant revision of the Communications Act 18 years ago, telephone companies offered telephone service through signals delivered over circuit-switched networks; cable companies used coaxial cables to deliver multi-channel video service; the wireless industry was in its adolescence; and the Internet was in an early stage of commercial use. Today, telephone, cable and wireless companies offer the combination of voice, video, and data to their customers in digital format over packet-routed networks that employ Internet Protocol (IP); there are more wireless than wireline communications customers; and the use of the Internet for the delivery of information of all kinds is becoming ubiquitous. 

“A date should be set by the end of this decade to ‘sunset’ the public switched network and replace it with Internet-based communications platforms that are highly efficient, scalable , resilient and readily capable of handling voice, data or video communications,” commented Boucher.

Boucher recommends that the Committee initiate legislative reforms that:

1. Recognize the pervasive and rapidly developing role of broadband networks in the delivery of modern communications and the urgent need for deregulatory parity among similarly situated broadband service providers.

2. Reaffirm the current light-touch regulatory approach to broadband that broadly stimulates investment in networks and promotes both job creation and innovation.

3. Realign the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) regulatory structure to match current marketplace and technological realities, recognizing today’s cross-platform competition in which telephone, cable and wireless carriers compete head-to-head in the provision of voice, video, and data services.

4. Eliminate existing duplicative or unnecessary functions at the FCC, including its duplication of the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission’s role in reviewing communications merger transactions. 

5. Enable the near-term reallocation of significant swaths of government-held spectrum for commercial auction to help address the existing spectrum deficit facing commercial wireless carriers.
6. Facilitate secondary market transactions among spectrum holders and encourage streamlined processes to enhance the efficiency of spectrum use as additional mechanisms to address the nation’s spectrum crisis.

To review Boucher’s recommendations on addressing modern communications policy needs in full, visit here.

 

Friday, January 17

Broadband at Home & Abroad

By Rick Boucher

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Just before the end of 2013, the New York Times published the article “U.S. Struggles to Keep Pace in Delivering Broadband Service,” a piece that compared broadband deployment in the States with the likes of the Latvian capital of Riga and Seoul, South Korea.

The problem is, the article failed to do justice to the success of U.S. broadband providers in serving customers. It was also misleading in its use of Riga and Seoul as the standard for broadband measurement; the article could as easily have cited Kansas City, with its 1 gigabit speeds, and found the rest of the world to be inadequate in comparison.

Here’s a better gauge of broadband deployment: The National Telecommunications and Information Administration reports that the U.S., despite its vast geography and dispersed cities, has higher average speeds and lower prices than Europe generally. In fact, entry-level broadband pricing in the U.S. is the second lowest globally, behind Israel, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

I wasn’t the only one baffled by the Times’ approach. At this morning’s AEI Tech Policy Summit, Roslyn Layton, Ph.D. of the Center for Communications, Media and Information Technologies — who also lives in Denmark — tackled the Times’ article directly, telling attendees, “I always hear that everything is better in Europe… there are pockets of next-generation service, but it’s hardly a ‘utopia.’”

Layton also highlighted the fact that U.S. broadband investment is two times greater than investment in the European Union, and that, as she put it, “The U.S. is getting one quarter of all the money being invested in broadband networks across the world.”

That’s a lot of investment, and as a result of all that private money flowing into networks, America now has both fixed and wireless broadband systems that are fast, robust, and affordable – all thanks to a light-touch regulatory framework that encouraged some $1.2 trillion in investment since 1996, with billions more expected as more spectrum is made available for wireless broadband. In contrast, Europe’s highly-regulatory, leased access regime has limited broadband infrastructure investment and slowed deployment of next-generation networks.

Riga and Seoul may have faster speeds, but when it comes to deployment of broadband, they’re anomalies rather than benchmarks. Contrary to the inference in the Times’ article, the U.S., with its pro-investment regulatory policy, has eclipsed all of Europe in both network speed and affordability. That’s not a struggle, it’s a success.

Friday, January 10

A Busy Year for the FCC

By Brad

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At the official blog of the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Tom Wheeler lays out the Commission’s commitment to achieving the transition to all-Internet based networks. As the Chairman writes:

Among the biggest changes the FCC must confront are the IP transitions. Note the use of the plural “transitions.” Circuit switching is being replaced by more efficient networks – made of fiber or copper or wireless. Greater efficiency in networks can translate into greater innovation and greater benefits for network operators and users alike.

The best way to speed technology transitions is to incent network investment and innovation by preserving the enduring values that consumers and businesses have come to expect. Those values: public safety, interconnection, competition, consumer protection and, of course, universal access, are not only familiar, they are fundamental.

Those very same values were highlighted by our own Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher in an op-ed for Bloomberg Government in November:

Government must play a key role throughout this process by advancing consumer interests with a transition plan guided by core principles. These basic protections will remain government’s responsibility even after the old phone system is shut down:

1. The commitment to universal service must endure. Next-generation high-speed broadband networks and their benefits must be available to every American. As we move beyond the old phone network, we cannot leave anybody behind. Without dictating specific technologies or micro-managing how communications competitors meet their public service obligations, we must push the envelope to ensure that every American can access modern broadband service and enjoy the benefits that come with it. At a minimum, post transition everybody should enjoy service at least as good as they can now receive from copper-wire phone networks.

2. Public safety must be assured. 911 emergency calls must go through—every single time—no matter what technology or services consumers adopt.

3. Services for the hearing-impaired and those with vision problems also must be retained at levels that at least match what consumers enjoy today.

4. Consumer protection must remain at the heart of communications policy. Consumers must know that government has their back; that service providers will deliver on their promises; that spotty service, fraud, or other abuses will not be tolerated. Consumers must have a place to take complaints with confidence that something will be done about them.

5. Establishing a backup plan for power failures should be part of the transition process. The rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy exposed some potential weaknesses in the way our digital technology works today. While fiber-optic-based systems tolerate water damage that can short out copper wires, they are more vulnerable when the electricity at the user’s premises goes out.

6. Special retrofitting and other creative solutions may be required to ensure that modern networks function fully with personal and business equipment such as fax machines, security systems, health monitors, and credit card readers, even though they may not currently be compatible with today’s broadband connections.

While it’s encouraging Chairman Wheeler is taking the plunge when it comes to the IP Transition, in reality it’s just one of the major issues the FCC will face under his watch. As our Co-Chairman Bruce Mehlman argued in December, outdated regulations could make many of the FCC’s work difficult:

At the FCC, Wheeler inherits a regulatory regime designed decades ago for an earlier era. Voice and video services are regulated under separate provisions of the Communications Act of 1934 (Title II and Title VI, respectively) based on assumptions of a permanent monopoly and massive barriers to entry. The Act and its subsequent amendments fundamentally fail to acknowledge the competitive alternatives created by the technological and marketplace convergence of the broadband age. Today’s FCC-enforced regulatory framework was designed for a world without Netflix Inc., Skype Communications, Google Inc., or iPhones — a world without the Internet. Thus, the agency remains stuck in the past, distinguishing among companies based on the technology they use and their legacy status under the Act. Consumers make no such distinctions.

That Chairman Wheeler and the Commissioners at the FCC are already rolling up their sleeves for the IP Transition should be applauded. But it’s just one of many issues the Commission needs to dive into in the next 12 months.

Wednesday, January 08

Time for an Overhaul

By Brad

Via Julian Hattem of The Hill, two Republican lawmakers have taken a deep dive into the 1996 Communications Act and are urging a major overhaul:

Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its communications and technology subcommittee, released a white paper outlining flaws that have emerged since the law was last updated more than a decade ago. The paper is the first action in the multi-year effort to update the landmark Communications Act.

The 1934 law created and outlined the powers of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but has not been significantly modernized since 1996.

Updating the law “is critical to ensuring that the communications and technology sectors, the bright spot of our national economy, have laws and regulations that foster continued innovation and job creation,” Upton and Walden said in a joint statement. “This is the first step in a multi-year open and transparent effort and we look forward to broad input from the many interested parties.”

The Reps.’ white paper is available here. On a related note, our Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher — who was chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet when the 1996 Act was put together, marked the 17th anniversary of the Act back in February. As he wrote then in an op-ed for Roll Call:

Seventeen years after the 1996 Telecommunications Act was signed into law, we find ourselves at another major inflection point. The IP transition is already under way, driven by technological advances and consumer preferences. FCC Chairman Genachowski has taken farsighted steps to create a process for addressing the policy questions that transition brings, and one of the giants of the industry has made helpful suggestions for a national dialogue through a single, focused proceeding for clarity and meaningful participation by all interested parties.

It is my hope that regulators can, once again, come to a consensus on how best to regulate fairly. Only with a level playing field will competition thrive and more investment in America’s broadband infrastructure increase. Let the conversation begin.

Friday, November 22

From Plain Old Phones to Broadband: A Policy Prescription for the FCC

By Rick Boucher

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Bloomberg Government

November 21, 2013 10:13PM ET | Bloomberg BNA

American innovation has led to massive adoption of cutting-edge communications and entertainment technologies. Functionalities and services once wondrous and new are now commonplace. A step back reveals how far and how fast we’ve come. In 2000, television changed forever as TiVO introduced us to time shifting, the ability for consumers to record and watch TV programs at the scheduled hour of their choosing. That same year, our Internet and telephone experience was enhanced as cable modems began to take hold in American homes. The following year, we saw the first iPod, and how we buy, store, and listen to music has never been the same. The iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) gave birth to a revolution in the use of mobile data.

Unseen but ever-present wired and wireless broadband networks provide the foundation for the high-quality video, voice and Internet services that Americans have welcomed with historic enthusiasm, as they have been adopted by in the home and mobile users at a stunning pace.

During the past decade, under our feet and above our heads, the nation’s broadband service providers have invested tens of billions of dollars to bring high-speed wired and wireless connections to our homes and businesses and in the process have reshaped almost everything about how we communicate. Because of these investments, we constantly have available a seamless stream of voice, data, and video on demand.

Today’s digital networks offer boundless opportunity—boosting economic growth and job creation; through remote monitoring and telemedicine, bringing world-class medical care to remote communities and easing the burden of chronic conditions; improving education for students of all ages by delivering advanced coursework, college classes, and even online degrees through distance-learning programs; maintaining constant communications with business associates, family and friends; and providing entertainment and real-time news, weather, and sports information.

This enhanced connectivity also enables civic empowerment—especially for groups who haven’t always been heard—enabling them to communicate more easily with elected officials and to organize and advocate on their own behalf.

Achieving the next level of broadband investment and enabling faster connections, more capable services and deeper Internet penetration in hard-to-serve areas will be facilitated by policy changes by the FCC. With the commission’s newly arrived leadership, these needed changes should be at the forefront of the agency’s agenda.

While communications of all kinds have rapidly moved to the Internet and broadband networks, the aging copper-wire, circuit-switched telephone network remains in place, using the same technology Alexander Graham Bell pioneered. It offers plain old telephone service (POTS), and Americans are fleeing it in droves at an ever-accelerating pace. Only 5 percent of Americans use the old network as their exclusive communications medium. Another 38 percent use it in combination with wireless service, and most Americans use wireless communications only or rely on a combination of wireless and a wired alternative to the telephone network, such as cable modem service.

We stand at an inflection point where the rules that were sensible in the last century for a heavily regulated circuit-switched telephone monopoly are no longer sensible in today’s competitive communications landscape dominated by broadband and a multiplicity of Internet-enabled services. The requirement of current law that telephone companies spend billions annually maintaining a single-function, aging network that consumers no longer prefer is impeding the next level of broadband investment. Planning and delivering a rapid transition to an all-broadband communications environment is the greatest challenge that the new FCC chairman faces.

A Change Requiring New Policy

In its time, the phone network was a culture-changing technical marvel that introduced nationwide communication through copper wire, erasing geography and reliably enabling Americans to dial business contacts, friends, family, and neighbors anytime, anywhere.

During the early and mid-20th century, access to telephones grew rapidly as government aided and promoted a monopoly to accelerate network build-out to reach all Americans. As telephone service became nearly ubiquitous in the latter half of the last century, technological and market advancements created the possibility for alternative satellite, wireless, and landline communications for businesses and consumers.

Realizing the potential benefits that the array of digital technologies could provide, the U.S. government ended the phone monopoly, and with passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, began to chart a course toward more robust competition and entrepreneurship in the nation’s communications marketplace. Consumers were first offered choice in the long distance telephone market. Then new providers, such as cable companies, built out broadband networks to offer competitive wired residential telephone and Internet services. The door was opened for telephone companies to offer cable TV service, and digital networks were developed that could accommodate it.

As the reliability of wireless communications increased and access to broadband services has expanded, American consumers at work and in the home have embraced them with a passion. Modern broadband communications systems now link us to the Internet; move information, data and video at lightning speed; and carry our voice “phone” calls, too. These are the networks consumers prefer, and the transition away from the antiquated telephone network is occurring with remarkable speed. As society now treasures its smartphones and tablet devices, streaming videos, GPS guidance systems, and other electronic wonders, we forget that little more than a decade ago personal communications was still largely about POTS. Current law still assumes that most communications are delivered by the POTS network.

Existing regulations were created in a world where heavily regulated phone companies provided copper wire voice service, lightly-regulated cable companies delivered TV, and wireless companies offered services deemed too unreliable to compete with wired telephone service. In fact, these rules still compel telephone companies to invest nearly $13.5 billion each year to maintain and run the old copper phone system as if it were still the nation’s core communications system used by almost all.

Too Much Investment to Maintain Old Technology

As the number of telephone company subscribers on POTS sharply falls, the per-subscriber cost of maintaining the old network has become unsustainable. According to a recent study, America’s telephone companies made more than $154 billion in capital expenditures from 2006 to 2011. Surprisingly, the majority of that investment was dedicated to maintaining the declining telephone network, even though today only about one-third of Americans still use it at all, and only 5 percent use it exclusively. Every dollar that is spent maintaining a voice-only network that consumers are fleeing is a dollar not invested in the modern multifunction broadband networks that consumers prefer. Every dollar telephone companies spend on an ancient, declining, and little used technology is a dollar not spent developing the more capable broadband infrastructures through which phone companies can become stronger competitors in the offering of voice, video, and data with largely unregulated cable companies. That’s an important goal because when competition is fair and fierce, consumers ultimately win big with competitive pricing and greater choices to fit their personal needs.

Ancient rules and old ways of thinking are undermining innovation, damaging competition, forcing billions of dollars into misdirected capital investment, and slowing our national progress. Maintaining the status quo for the antiquated telephone network—either by decision or inaction—is a costly anachronism. Requiring phone companies to operate voice-only telephone networks while they are building out new fiber-optic broadband networks makes as much sense as requiring a hitching post in front of every store, forcing bus companies to maintain streetcar tracks, or insisting on backup electric fans in every air-conditioned building.

The IP Transition: Six Principles to Consider

The FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan is instructive. It observes that the regulations requiring telephone companies to maintain the old phone network “siphon[s] investments from new networks and services” and is “not sustainable.” The report also declares that the transition to “broadband is the greatest infrastructure challenge of the 21st century.” The FCC’s Technological Advisory Council recommended that the transition and sunset of the POTS network be completed by 2018.

That’s not very far away, and meeting that schedule will bring its own unique challenges. Consumers must be protected, and certain populations are at risk of being disadvantaged. Of particular concern are those who are not yet taking advantage of the opportunities created by new digital technologies. For example, late adopters—largely older and less affluent consumers, many of whom reside in hard-to-serve rural areas, who have not yet joined the broadband era—may be at greater risk unless we complete the transition in a carefully planned and orderly way. The transition to 21st century communications networks must serve every American. But that result is not pre-ordained; it will require hard work.

Government must play a key role throughout this process by advancing consumer interests with a transition plan guided by core principles. These basic protections will remain government’s responsibility even after the old phone system is shut down:

1. The commitment to universal service must endure. Next-generation high-speed broadband networks and their benefits must be available to every American. As we move beyond the old phone network, we cannot leave anybody behind. Without dictating specific technologies or micro-managing how communications competitors meet their public service obligations, we must push the envelope to ensure that every American can access modern broadband service and enjoy the benefits that come with it. At a minimum, post transition everybody should enjoy service at least as good as they can now receive from copper-wire phone networks.

2. Public safety must be assured. 911 emergency calls must go through—every single time—no matter what technology or services consumers adopt.

3. Services for the hearing-impaired and those with vision problems also must be retained at levels that at least match what consumers enjoy today.

4. Consumer protection must remain at the heart of communications policy. Consumers must know that government has their back; that service providers will deliver on their promises; that spotty service, fraud, or other abuses will not be tolerated. Consumers must have a place to take complaints with confidence that something will be done about them.

5. Establishing a backup plan for power failures should be part of the transition process. The rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy exposed some potential weaknesses in the way our digital technology works today. While fiber-optic-based systems tolerate water damage that can short out copper wires, they are more vulnerable when the electricity at the user’s premises goes out.

6. Special retrofitting and other creative solutions may be required to ensure that modern networks function fully with personal and business equipment such as fax machines, security systems, health monitors, and credit card readers, even though they may not currently be compatible with today’s broadband connections.

FCC Should Begin Trials Now

Consumer interests are paramount. These core challenges must be met before the book is closed on the antiquated POTS network. Contrary to the claims of some, the post-transition environment will not be regulation free. Indeed, regulation will be necessary to assure consumer protection, but just as networks are modernizing, the regulatory landscape must be modernized as well.

What’s needed is smart regulation appropriate to protect consumers and public safety, promote competition and support universal service, while also encouraging sustained private investment and innovation in America’s next-generation communications networks.

The upgrade and modernization effort will require thought and planning. That’s why we must start now while the existing phone system is available as a “safety net” backup for any potential glitch or surprise that might arise during the upgrade to a new and modern system. No one is proposing a “flash cut” in which the telephone network disappears overnight. This process will, in fact, probably take half a decade to complete.

To take the first step, the FCC should rely on a time-tested method: demonstration projects. Conducting demonstration trials in carefully selected markets in which existing POTS users are rapidly moved to Internet protocol-based networks will provide a controlled environment for an accelerated transition with the existing telephone network still in place as a safety net.

This approach gives consumers an assurance that if any unexpected problems causing consumer disruptions arise, service can continue over the telephone network while technical and service issues are resolved. Through the demonstration projects, we can determine what is likely to go wrong and have solutions in place prior to a broader national transition.

The FCC has a recent successful precedent for taking precisely this step. In the nation’s transition from analog to digital television broadcasting, the FCC conducted a similar test. Leading up to the digital TV conversion, some warned of potential negative consequences for consumers. The warnings were similar to those we are hearing about the transition from POTS to modern networks. In particular, the articulated fear was that switching to digital television broadcasts would harm consumers, particularly the elderly and less technically savvy viewers who decide to keep their older analog television sets but would experience difficulty installing the required converter box to receive and convert the new digital broadcasts. The circumstance of rural and lower income viewers was a particular focus. To address these concerns, the FCC launched a demonstration project in Wilmington, N.C., an area with a wide diversity of viewers, including those with low incomes, the elderly, and viewers living in both metropolitan and rural areas.

The FCC’s Wilmington demonstration project proved a success. It provided clear evidence that on the day analog broadcasts ended, viewers were prepared. There were almost no complaints. Analog television users across the Wilmington region had successfully installed digital-to- analog converter boxes. The trial inspired confidence that the national transition could proceed uneventfully, and on national transition day, very few problems were encountered.

Employing the same model, the FCC should now move quickly to authorize closely supervised demonstration projects in selected markets, perhaps one urban and one rural, where people quickly shift from existing telephone networks to modern broadband networks. The demonstration projects offer a test bed to guarantee that core consumer values will be protected, to learn what may go wrong in a controlled rapid transition and to devise solutions for problems that in fact arise prior to a broader national transition.

While the attraction of broadband networks has propelled a POTS-to-broadband transition that is now well advanced, we owe it to ourselves to plan and complete it on the schedule that the FCC’s Advisory Council recommended. Applying the knowledge gained through demonstration projects we can accelerate the POTS phase-out and realize the benefits of greater network functionality, a broader array of services for consumers and the economic efficiencies that come from devoting investment to the networks of the future rather than the network of the past.

Public-Private Partnership Needed for New Road Map

For the moment we have the luxury of time to conduct demonstration projects, but an additional sense of urgency for action is now apparent. The current telephone network is supported by antiquated equipment, and as consumers have continued their ongoing migration to the new networks, equipment providers either no longer manufacture or have significantly scaled back production of the TDM (time-division multiplexing)-based equipment necessary to maintain and operate the POTS network. As fewer replacement parts become available, maintaining the phone network grows dramatically more expensive, further skewing the ratio between investment in old and new technologies, with the ever-escalating costs being passed on to consumers. All Americans stand to benefit from shifting investment to modern networks that offer consumers service as least as good as what they enjoy today, as well as the greater functionality that broadband networks can offer.

A public-private partnership among all stakeholders—consumers, telecom companies, suppliers, and regulators—will be needed to establish the rules of the road for the new network. These stakeholders can embrace key principles—recently outlined by the leading consumer advocacy organization Public Knowledge—service for all, competition, reliability, consumer protection, and public safety.

Simply providing access to new technology while protecting core consumer values, however, isn’t the whole job. We also must boost adoption rates, educating every American about what the transition means, how it will affect them and how by using broadband they can improve opportunities for themselves and their families. We can’t afford to leave any American in the dark about the value of broadband; we can’t leave anyone behind.

So the real questions surrounding the IP transition are not whether, but when; not if, but how. Bipartisan support exists in Congress for the transition itself and for the basic principles that should be at its core, including consumer protection, universal service, network reliability, competition and public safety. Now is the time for all stakeholders to work together, starting with the demonstration projects, to ensure that the transition’s rapid final phase proceeds as smoothly as possible.

New FCC Chairman Embraces Need for Quick Action

The Internet’s evolution has brought us to another critical juncture in communications policy as we consider how to complete the transition from the bygone era of plain old telephone service to the broadband future of the 21st century. It’s a critical transition, given broadband’s increasingly dominant role in every part of our economy, as well as its ability to improve lives and advance economic growth. It’s also something that just about every stakeholder, including the FCC, regards as inevitable.

In 2011, the Technological Advisory Council led by now-FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, noted that “[t]he FCC should take steps to prepare for the inevitable transition” from the old network and in fact “take steps to expedite the transition, with a target date of 2018,” including the need to “re-align regulatory requirements to emerging technologies.”

The recommendation reflected vision and foresight then, and provides an ambitious but achievable agenda now. When it’s achieved, Americans will have access to reliable networks designed specifically for broadband voice, video, and Internet services, rather than antiquated networks that support phones wired to the wall. Every app, every smartphone and tablet, every desktop computer will smoothly connect consumers to the online experience of their choice—telemedicine services for better health, virtual classrooms for lifetime learning, their legislators’ offices for civic engagement, a job opportunity, a business contact, a sporting event, a movie, friends and family across town or on the other side of the world. That’s the goal—delivering the services consumers want. Upgrading and modernizing our 20th century telephone networks will get us there.

This goal now appears closer on the horizon than ever before. In one of his first official acts, Chairman Wheeler has made clear the need to speed the “Fourth Network Revolution,” recognizing how “new networks catalyze innovation, investment, ideas and ingenuity.” He stated that “the time to act starts now” and proposed a timetable for FCC action in January 2014 on how to “begin a diverse set of experiments that will allow the commission and the public to observe the impact on consumers and businesses of the [IP transition and proposed demonstration projects].” In setting this course, the new chairman has jump-started the process and appears ready to steer the FCC toward addressing the key policy, technical, and consumer issues necessary to bring 21st century high-speed broadband to more Americans.

In our land of opportunity and innovation, we’re a place of relentless creativity. At the core of our success is an entrepreneurial culture powered by private sector investment. In that American tradition, it’s incumbent on us to ensure that the benefits and opportunities of next-generation networks and services become widespread and available to all. The POTS-to-broadband transition will free the needed investment. The next steps for us to take are now clear.

Reproduced with Permission from The Telecommunications Law Resource Center, Copyright 2013, The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) www.bna.com.

Thursday, October 31

The FCC’s Step to Provide Certainty in Rural Communications

By Rick Boucher

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America’s 60 million rural residents received an early holiday gift this week when the Federal Communications Commission launched an initiative to improve rural communications.  In unanimous agreement, the FCC acknowledged problems caused by the existing tangle of regulations, technologies and business plans that have long affected telephone call completion for some rural customers. This week, the FCC took action to ensure better and more accountable service and connectivity.

This action addresses an outstanding issue that has been around for years. The failure of certain calls to go through to rural Americans resulted from new communications technologies interacting with older telephone networks and the failure of regulations to keep pace in the marketplace. Everyone in America, and particularly those in rural areas, depends upon a reliable communications network. For almost 3 decades I represented rural Virginia in Congress, and I know firsthand of the extraordinary importance rural residents attach to reliable and accessible communications.

So, as we look across the communications landscape, we see changes everywhere. More than 40 percent of homes today are wireless-only, and almost that same number receive their phone service through a broadband provider. In Florida and Michigan, to pick two representative states, only about 15% of homes connect to traditional telephone landlines today. Americans in droves have dropped their outdated non-broadband plain old phone service and are quickly moving to high-speed, advanced broadband networks and services, both wired and wireless.

Some consumer advocates have suggested that rural call completion must be addressed prior to implementing policies necessary to the upgrade and modernization of our nation’s telephone networks to all broadband. It’s an important need which the FCC has now addressed in a positive and thoughtful manner. As the FCC moves forward to promote better and more ubiquitous high-speed broadband access nationwide, moving the few remaining users of outdated networks to more functional connections that provide more varied services, it can best accomplish the goal by modernizing its regulations to reflect the technologies of today.

I commend the FCC for this week’s action and encourage the Commission to continue its efforts to ensure that regulations match modern technological capabilities. Promoting certainty is the fastest way to ensure that high-speed all-broadband networks become reality.

Wednesday, October 30

Time to Get to Work

By Rick Boucher

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Late yesterday, the Senate unanimously approved the appointments of Tom Wheeler and Michael O’Rielly to the FCC.  Upon joining the FCC this week, Wheeler and O’Reilly will now bring the Commission to full strength.

The new members join the FCC at a critical time. As my colleague Jamal Simmons wrote back in May (such is the pace of Washington these days), two of the very top issues the Commission faces are the modernization and upgrade of our existing telephone networks and the ever-pressing need to free up more spectrum to meet the increasing demand for wireless broadband by America’s consumers.

To bring next-generation broadband networks to the entire nation, the FCC should approve demonstration tests in several markets, similar to the trails set up by the FCC preceding the conversion to digital television, in order for this major network upgrade to be as smooth as possible. For spectrum, the Commission should move quickly on holding open incentive auctions, rapidly approve secondary market transactions, and work with NTIA in the repurposing of federal spectrum so it can be put to use for consumers.

And the FCC should move rapidly on the ConnectEd initiative, to help ensure access to high-speed broadband for our nation’s students at school and at home. Making that program a reality, along with the two agenda items listed above, will help the FCC make a lasting and highly positive impact on the lives of consumers and the economy as a whole.

On behalf of all of us at IIA, congratulations to Wheeler and O’Rielly on their confirmations, and also congratulations to Acting Chairwoman Clyburn for her steady leadership during the past few months. Now it’s time to roll up sleeves and get to work.

Thursday, October 24

Boucher in Roll Call

By Brad

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Today’s edition of Roll Call features an opinion piece from our Honorary Chairman Rick Boucher on how antiquated rules are slowing innovation. Here’s a taste:

Throughout history, innovation and new technologies have improved the way we live. But each change also required adjustments to maximize the gains. When the automobile overtook the horse, we needed new rules of the road so traffic would flow safely and efficiently. Electric lighting gave us the chance to adjust schedules for efficiency and lifestyle benefits because our day was no longer governed by the rising and setting of the sun.

Similarly, it’s time for smart, modernized telecom rules that promote consumer choice and protect consumer rights, enhance competition, and ensure public safety so that Americans fully enjoy the boundless opportunities of the Internet Age.

Check out the full piece over at Roll Call.

Wednesday, October 23

A Step in the Right Direction

By Rick Boucher

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Earlier today, the House Communications Subcommittee held a hearing on what’s commonly known in the tech industry as the “IP transition.”

That may sound like a rather dry affair, but the issues being discussed are anything but dry or boring. In fact, when it comes to our nation’s communications infrastructure — and, really, the health of our vital tech economy — conversations like the one held today are critical.

While the hearing itself was short on fireworks, it was not without surprises. Both Public Knowledge’s VP Harold Feld and AT&T’s Senior VP Jim Cicconi agreed on much – for example, that well-constructed trials are needed and that as the transition moves forward, certain principles must continue to be adhered to. As Cicconi testified:

[T]his transition from the old to the new should consider things we’ve all come to see as fundamental — universal connectivity, consumer protection, reliability, public safety, and interconnection.

The fact that Feld and Cicconi agree not just on the importance of those “things we’ve all come to see as fundamental,” but on the importance of moving forward with the transition itself, shows just how much things have changed in a short amount of time.

The legacy copper telephone network that has served our country so well for over a century is rapidly being abandoned by consumers, who are increasingly choosing wireless and VoIP for their communication needs. At the same time, providers like AT&T and Verizon are required to continue investing billions maintaining the network of old.

This point was not lost on Rep. John Dingell, who stated during the hearing that the billions now spent on legacy networks “would be better spent on the IP backbone of the future.”

But the IP transition is about more than the direction of investment dollars. As Cicconi told the Subcommittee:

Four years ago the FCC issued a National Broadband Plan as directed by the Congress. That plan concluded that bringing modern broadband services to all Americans is vital, and that to do so we must have communications policies rooted in the future, not the past.

Put another way, if we’re ever going to achieve the goals of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, the IP transition needs to be encouraged through smart policies. That starts with looking at regulations crafted in 1996 or earlier that no longer apply to — and may in fact hold back — the vast array of choices consumers now have.

Put still another way, the IP transition is really a national broadband goal. The only question, which today’s hearing started to address, is how best to get there.

For AT&T’s part, the company has already put forward a plan with the FCC to conduct “test trials” akin to the one conducted during the transition to digital broadcasting in order to identify any potential problems as the legacy network is upgraded and the few customers who still have legacy service move to modern connections. As Cicconi testified:

We feel trials are critical. As careful as our planning is, no one can anticipate every issue that may arise when we actually transition off the legacy wireline infrastructure. Trials will help us learn while we still have a safety-net in place. And as we learn, all of us — industry, government, customers and stakeholders — can then work together over the coming years to address any problems we find.

 
On this point too, Public Knowledge’s Feld agreed, although his organization’s vision for how the trials should be conducted differed from AT&T’s. And encouragingly, Rep. Dingell also stated the FCC should “work with AT&T to set IP trials in motion,” adding that the trials would be an “invaluable case study for businesses, government, and consumers.” Rep. Shimkus and Rep. Waxman agreed that we should move forward with the trials, as well.

As Cicconi noted during his testimony, the transition is already well underway, but it won’t be a quick process. Nor should it be, because every time we make a great leap forward, we should know exactly where we’re going to land. Now is the time for all parties to work together on ensuring the transition goes as smoothly as possible. That’s what today’s hearing was about.

Any time you have industry, government, and consumer groups in agreement on something, you know it’s time to act. Today’s hearing was just one of many discussions yet to come on the IP transition, but it was a critical step in the right direction.

Monday, September 30

High-Speed Broadband Networks With a Safety Net

By Rick Boucher

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It is hard to believe that next month marks one year since Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, flooding streets, tunnels and cutting power in many towns. Beyond causing $65 billion in damage, the storm highlighted the vulnerabilities of our aging telephone network and the broader need to modernize and upgrade our nation’s communications infrastructure to bring 21st Century services and capabilities to all Americans.

There is an urgent need to complete the upgrade of the century-old telephone network, and replace it with a sparkling new broadband communications system that links to the Internet; moves information, data, and video at lightning speed; and carries our voice “phone” calls, too. It’s an exciting change that creates jobs, opens the door to improved schooling, and enhances access to medical care among other benefits.

It also means saying goodbye to a familiar friend – the old telephone network that’s enabled us to chat with friends and family from the comfort of our own homes for more than 100 years. A marvel of the 20th Century, that system is now becoming obsolete, surpassed by broadband technologies capable of delivering phone calls and offering a myriad of new communications services and applications.

The switch to the next-generation network is invigorating; it’s beneficial and, as the consumer group Public Knowledge has pointed out, “It’s inevitable.”  In fact, the vast majority of Americans, perhaps 75 percent, have already made the move. Their house phone, which may look and feel just like what they’ve always had, is now connected to and powered by the same broadband technology that connects their computers to the Internet and can deliver high-definition TV programs, as well. With so many making the switch, the old network has grown redundant and increasingly costly to operate and maintain. In fact, some manufacturers have already pulled the plug and stopped making antiquated equipment for the telephone network, such as the circuit switches used to connect calls. 

This nationwide upgrade and modernization requires thought and planning, and should be undertaken in a way that protects consumers and assures that basic voice service remains available and reliable. That’s why we ought to do it now – while the existing phone system can provide a “safety net” as a back-up for any potential glitch or surprise that might arise during the complex transition toward a new and modern technology. 

Although inevitable, the move to the network of the future is gradual enough that we now have an opportunity to direct and shape it in a seamless way for America’s consumers. Since we know it’s coming, we owe it to ourselves to make sure it happens the right way and ensure that any potential disruptions are minimized for those who choose to arrive late to the high-speed broadband age.

Central to a smooth transition is having public dialogue among all stakeholders – consumers, telecom companies, suppliers, and regulators – to help set the rules of the road for the new network. Under a collaborative process, we should arrive at key principles to guide us – perhaps beginning with five concepts recently proposed by Public Knowledge – service for all, competition, reliability, consumer protection, and public safety. 

In addition to overarching principles, important technical activity, such as geographic field tests, must commence to better understand what works and what doesn’t in real life and to find solutions for the issues that will inevitably arise. Such advance testing, similar to the trials conducted for America’s switch to digital TV, is the best way to protect consumers. Trials give us the chance to come up with fixes now while the old telephone network is in place to lessen any potential consumer disruption associated with the switchover.

Upgrading and deploying modern broadband networks in a controlled, supervised fashion with “safety net” functionality in place is far superior to inaction. Beyond the obsolescence that is rapidly diminishing the circuit-switched network, as we witnessed during the past hurricane season, our nation’s older telephone system is highly susceptible to the forces of nature and the physical destruction they can bring.   

In the future, when natural disasters obliterate legacy telephone networks, service restoration for consumers and businesses will be achieved through the deployment of new wireless and/or broadband network technologies. Under those circumstances, network upgrades occur without the benefit of the existing copper telephone network and the likelihood of consumer inconvenience and disruption being much greater.

Right now, we have the gift of time to get the path toward modernization right by devising a smart new framework tailored for next-generation communications. But without an action plan, such as starting local market trials, some of that time slips away each day. We need to get working without further delay so that the transition to 21st Century communications is a step forward for all and a step backward for none. 

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.

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