Such a major transition will require thoughtful planning and the resolution of numerous policy questions. For example, we must determine the role of the federal universal service program and ensure that all consumers receive services at least as good as what they currently enjoy.
We need to preserve access to communications services for people with disabilities. We must retain basic consumer protections. And, lastly, we must make sure that services are reliable and affordable for lower-income Americans.
At the time of the 1996 act, I sought to serve my rural district by encouraging investment in new technologies more likely to reach rural areas. I believed smarter regulation would encourage greater competition, stronger investment and a more rapid arrival of capable telecommunications networks. I still do.
To address the complicated policy aspects of the IP transition, the FCC has opened multiple proceedings that address various questions. In addition, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recently announced the formation of the agency’s Technology Transitions Policy Task Force, which draws on expertise across the agency’s various bureaus.
These are welcome steps, but more can be done. In November, AT&T filed an IP transition petition calling for a national dialogue on the IP transition and recommending, as a matter of efficiency, consolidating the multiple open proceedings that consider policy aspects of the IP transition into one proceeding. A single proceeding allows focus, transparency and clarity. It provides a more meaningful opportunity for stakeholders, including consumers, to comment and become active participants in the IP transition policy formation process.
The petition also suggests that the FCC establish pilot “test” projects in selected communities across the nation where communications customers would rapidly be moved from the PSTN to IP networks. Such a “beta test” approach is modeled on a similar test that occurred in advance of the successful digital-television transition of the last decade. That transition took place only after a demonstration project in Wilmington, N.C., provided real-world data on how the transition would work in practice. We should do no less for the IP transition.
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.
Former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., served for 28 years in the House, where he chaired the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. He is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and chairs the government strategies practice at the law firm Sidley Austin, which represents communications companies among other clients.