Developing fundamental consensus for the IP transition

Scott Cleland Contributor
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While a strong consensus has emerged that obsolete communications law needs modernization for the 21st century Internet, developing consensus on the “fundamentals” of that IP transition is a work in progress.

A key to developing consensus further is the understanding that different technologies (analog vs. digital), different networks (PSTN vs. the Internet), and different communications policies (monopoly vs. competition), all warrant different problem-solving approaches by policymakers. Simply, modern law and regulation needs modern solutions.

The consensus goal here is to bring everyone forward to the 21st century Internet. The challenge here is how best to accomplish this critically important task for our society and economy.

Public Knowledge has made a helpful start in proposing “Five Fundamentals” for an IP Transition framework: universal availability, competition, consumer protection, network reliability, and public safety.

With Public Knowledge’s proposed “Five Fundamentals” represented in “quotes” let me comment on each fundamental in turn, with the goal of better reaching modernization consensus.

Public Knowledge said: “Service to All Americans: The Commission must ensure the benefits of these technologies flow to all Americans – regardless of race, color, religion, national origin or sex. The U.S. must not be the first industrialized nation to retreat from the goal of achieving 100% penetration of basic voice service.”
Given this is the hundredth anniversary of the Kingsbury Agreement which inaugurated the notion of universal-telephone-service in 1913; there obviously is a historic consensus around the importance of enabling all Americans to communicate with one another.

This notion originated when telephone was the central way to communicate in real time. However, modern technology has augmented real-time communications since then with texting, email, instant messaging, VoIP, Skyping, Tweeting, iChat, Facetime, Google+ Hang Out, video conferencing, etc. Now voice is a free app.

A huge difference between the goal of universal service in 1913 and 1934 is that very few Americans had telephones then. Now the starting point is completely different. Well over 90% of Americans enjoy a type of voice service and access to competing broadband services.

Thus modernization consensus must focus on doing no harm to the universal service successes we already enjoy, by focusing on getting the few percent that don’t have access to the Internet yet — access. We need to leave behind obsolete, inefficient and non-transparent schemes and pursue targeted, efficient and transparent means to promote universal availability of whatever Congress determines is the right policy for the nation.

Public Knowledge said: “Interconnection and Competition: Competing networks must continue to accept each other’s traffic and terminate each other’s calls in a manner that both preserves call quality throughout the country and actively promotes a robust and competitive environment. In particular, subscribers to different networks must not find themselves the victims of “peering disputes” that cut off communications and vital services.”

While there is strong consensus around competition as the best communications policy, consensus is impossible, by definition, on Internet “interconnection.” Interconnection is a circuit-switched technology concept. The Internet is a packet-switched technology concept. Just like you can’t force a square peg into a round hole, forcing the packet-switched Internet to operate like the circuit-switched PSTN would break the Internet.

The modern commercialized Internet has always operated via voluntary peering arrangements and that peering system has proven to work robustly, responsively, flexibly, quickly, efficiently and innovatively.

There is no surer way to break the Internet than to have the FCC and/or other regulators replace the bottom-up, multi-stakeholder, successful Internet peering system, with the proven unsuccessful CLEC-managed-competition model where the FCC attempted to micromanage every price, term and condition of interconnection. That FCC interconnection micro-management fiasco resulted in virtually every single new CLEC going bankrupt a decade ago.

Simply, there is no more obvious way to break something than to use it in a way it was never designed to be used.
Public Knowledge said: “Consumer Protection: Competition does not always ensure consumer protection. The Commission must ensure that consumers are protected – including effective recourse for the timely resolution of complaints – throughout and after the IP transition.”

Consumers deserve protection from real harm regardless of the technology, product, or service involved. A key to consensus here is to have modern law and regulation that is consumer driven, and technology/competition neutral. A consumer should not have to worry about the technological or company circumstances to know if their privacy, safety, property or money is protected from real harms.

Public Knowledge said: “Network Reliability: We must be able to rely on the phone network to function consistently and reliably. Recent events like Hurricane Sandy show that an IP based infrastructure may not be as reliable today as we had hoped. In the future, the Commission must ensure that even in a natural disaster, consumers will be able to make phone calls and stay connected.”

The copper-wire PSTN delivered 99.999% reliability because as a government-sanctioned monopoly it was the only mass, two-way, emergency, communication available. That special circumstance is no longer true.

We now have more resilient, robust and efficient communications reliability because we have multiple redundant networks and because the Internet was designed to self-heal itself and communicate via whatever part of the network is still operating at any given time.

The monopoly mindset of reliability was effectively “gold-plated and extremely wasteful. The costs to achieve the last amounts of reliability are cost-prohibitive and unnecessary in today’s competitive marketplace. The PSTN is a Cold War relic with parts of it actually hardened to withstand a 1960’s era nuclear attack.

Anyone in tune with the costs of near-perfect reliability in service understands that it would dwarf the amount of money needed to provide universal service to the few percent of Americans without access to broadband.

Once again, it makes no sense to burden today’s free, open, and competitive Internet with obsolete regulatory expectations for a bygone technology, economic circumstance, and era.

Public Knowledge said: “Public Safety: The transition to an IP based infrastructure must facilitate emergency communications. Consumers should be able to call 9-1-1 in any emergency with confidence that the call will be connected.”

Once again the best way to achieve consensus here is to have modern solutions to modern problems.

Does it make sense for just one communications technology, landline-voice, that people are using less and less relatively because they are also using various competitive modern alternatives (cellular service, texting, email, instant messaging, VoIP, Skyping, Tweeting, iChat, Facetime, Google+ Hang Out, etc.) to have public safety obligations?

A more common sense solution is a technology/competitively neutral approach to public safety requirements so that consumers don’t have to guess which technologies can communicate with public safety and which cannot.

In sum, there is broad consensus around what’s best for America and Americans — modernizing obsolete communications law and regulation — so that all Americans can enjoy the full benefits of the 21st century Internet via: universal availability, competition, consumer protection, network reliability, and public safety.

What we cannot let happen is to let imminently-solvable problems or disagreements on specific parts of the IP Transition, prevent or delay progress in delivering the overall and critical benefits of modernizing communications law and regulation — and bringing all Americans forward to the 21st century Internet to reap its extraordinary potential benefits.

Scott Cleland is President of Precursor LLC a consultancy serving Fortune 500 clients, and is Chairman of Netcompetition.org, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.

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Scott Cleland