When I was a kid, about 60 years ago, talking to our relatives in Cleveland on Sunday nights was such a momentous event that my mother would make my brother and I dress neatly and comb our hair for it — for a phone call! Such was the phone system in the 1950s.
That system has long been replaced by something incredibly cheaper, smarter and better. My Aunt Lillian and I spoke on those long-distance Sunday nights because a loop of copper wire allowed our voices to travel in the form of electromagnetic “waves.” Today, our voices would be sampled and converted into packets of digital signals that travel over many delivery systems using a shared standard “Internet Protocol.” In essence, our conversation would now be made of the same stuff as a remote medical diagnosis, a live concert, an interactive game, or a video of a cat playing the xylophone.
Optical fiber and other media are more robust, carry signals faster and are more capable of supporting applications that improve health care, education, commerce and our quality of life than their creaking grandfather, copper wire. Only a small portion of the population still uses the old copper loop technology instead of the new technologies of the digital age.
Such is their preference. But under the last remnants of the regulatory system that governed the Ma Bell telephone monopoly of a previous generation, the companies that built those original loops are obliged to maintain them despite the fact that cheaper and better alternatives not only exist, but are used by a sizable and growing majority of the population.
There’s a saying in baseball that goes like this: “You can’t steal second with one foot on first.” This is precisely the situation we face in telecommunications. We’re rapidly moving into this new, digital, era, but we still demand that the Bell legacy companies divert investment away from building high-speed broadband networks like fiber in order to keep the antiquated copper system alive.
We’re racing to second base with one foot on first. These copper networks are costly to maintain, not useful to most customers, and carry increased environmental impacts (since they need more power to run). In some cases, the systems are so old that the companies charged with keeping them on life-support find parts for them on eBay.
This issue is moving through the states, but is now knocking on the Congress’ door. The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, has suggested his enthusiasm for the networks of the future, but the FCC’s response to date has been to issue a slew of “principles” that resemble a pretext for continued regulation. Then again, if you made a career out of regulating copper networks, wouldn’t you hesitate to let them die a natural death?
Keeping copper “alive” places expectations and cost burdens on the companies that provided these original copper wires to our homes. When those companies were regulated monopolies, those expectations made sense. But the telephone market, thanks to the Clinton administration and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has become a competitive arena in which a variety of wired and wireless technologies compete aggressively, in contrast to the regulated monopoly system that preceded it. The benefits of that deregulation are visible everywhere as the Internet grows in scope and speed, fueled by over a trillion dollars of private investment since the 1996 Act.
Why slow that process down by requiring some of these companies to keep these antiquated networks alive? There are plenty of ways to guarantee access to first-responders and ensure some basic level of service without prolonging the life of the old copper loop networks. The FCC would serve us better if it raced to embrace the future, not protect the past.
Ev Ehrlich is a former undersecretary of Commerce under the Clinton administration.