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Why the FCC wants to replace America's phone network
New FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is on board with a telecom proposal to trash the old switches and copper wire for IP telephony
 
The analog phone may soon meet its end.
The analog phone may soon meet its end. (Thinkstock)

Here are a few things to know about new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler: He spent 20 years as a top lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries; he is promising to now be a lobbyist for the American public, telling Marketplace that "today, the American people are my client, and I want to be the best possible advocate for the American people"; and he wrote a blog post Tuesday in which he said he wants to overhaul America's phone system.

For about a year, the FCC has been considering a request from AT&T and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) to start phasing out the network of copper wire, switches, and circuits that make up the current time-division multiplexing (TDM) wired telephone system, and phase in an Internet Protocol (IP)–based system like that used by Skype, Vonage, and other VoIP services.

In his Tuesday blog post, Wheeler shifted the bureaucratic gears of the FCC into (relative) overdrive, announcing a January vote to set that IP transition in motion. Assuming the FCC votes yes, the commission will kick off "a diverse set of experiments" and policy examination to help ease U.S. phones from analog to digital. Wheeler heralds the switch as "the Fourth Network Revolution, and it is a good thing."

And the benefits for legacy phone companies like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink that control America's landline infrastructure are pretty clear: The analog system is expensive to maintain, relies on switches and other parts that may not even be manufactured anymore, and doesn't always play well with the newer technologies that still use the old wires, especially in rural areas.

And there are upsides for consumers, too. "The transition to IP technology has yielded many benefits, such as greater speed and capabilities," says Gautham Nagesh at The Wall Street Journal. IP fiber optic cables can carry more information than the old copper wires, allowing things like video and whatever other innovations the future holds. "Americans could soon be one step closer to getting that videophone they were promised in the 1960s," says Edward Wyatt at The New York Times.

Proponents and skeptics of the IP transition both agree that it will be a big deal. Here's Wheeler:

History has shown that new networks catalyze innovation, investment, ideas, and ingenuity. Their spillover effects can transform society — think of the creation of industrial organizations and the standardized time zones that followed in the wake of the railroad and telegraph.... The way forward is to encourage technological change while preserving the attributes of network services that customers have come to expect. [FCC]

Customers, first and foremost, expect their telephone to work when they lift it out of its cradle, and at a reasonable price. That's what has public advocacy groups nervous. "Our current infrastructure has served us well for almost a century but it no longer meets the needs of America's consumers," says AT&T's Jim Cicconi. But over those decades, the FCC and other regulators have enacted a host of consumer protection measures guaranteeing universal phone access for consumers and rival communication firms and technologies.

"The FCC previously decided against classifying broadband Internet as a telecom service," explains The Wall Street Journal's Nagesh, so it's "unclear how many of those old rules would be applied to the new networks."

Public Knowledge, an open Internet public interest group, backs switching to an IP-based phone network, so long as the FCC ensures that phone service remains universal, accessible, and reliable. "We're not just talking about the 100 million people with traditional phone lines," says Public Knowledge's Harold Feld. "That alone would be important. But we're also talking about reaching into the guts of the system, where things like 911 work, and figuring out how to upgrade that to these new technologies."

Given Wheeler's long stint as lobbyist for the industries he's regulating, there's plenty of concern that he "might not have the best interest of consumers in mind," says Chris Ziegler at The Verge. But since being confirmed by the Senate on Nov. 4, he's at least sounding a "pro-consumer note." And that includes making sure that consumers have "right of access to a network" and preserving the values users have come to expect from their phone service. Ziegler concludes:

Overall, Wheeler leaves us with as many questions as answers — but for an organization that's perpetually mired in striking the balance between consumer and industry, that's probably to be expected. If nothing else, he seems ready and willing to engage in real talk about real problems.... Ultimately, of course, the proof for Wheeler is in the proverbial pudding. He has no shortage of hot-button issues on his plate, ranging from multibillion-dollar spectrum auctions, to the proliferation of fiber to the home, to content debundling, to, of course, net neutrality. It should be a fascinating half decade. [The Verge]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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