FCC Votes To Establish Some IP Transition Ground Rules

The FCC Friday voted to insure access to networks and services—including IP 911—in the transition from copper to IP networks, but it was hardly one of the 90% or so votes that was unanimous.

That vote, on two items dealing with IP 911 and copper retirement, came following a series of IP-911 outages that affected millions and that the FCC has called unacceptable and as networks are moving toward IP delivery of communications services and what services and expectations should make that transition.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described it as keeping the network compact with consumers by insuring the portability of their service expectations.

To prevent a repeat of that 911 outage, the FCC is making clear that if the IP transition creates gaps in accountability and oversight of a functioning end-to-end 911 system, the FCC will step in to fill them.

Among the other proposals are updates to rules requiring networks, particularly incumbent providers, to inform the public of any major changes to service, and requiring that "new types of services meet the needs of consumers before carriers are allowed to remove legacy services from the marketplace."

The FCC also asks how to insure backup battery power for IP phone service, which unlike traditional phone service does not work when the power goes out.

An FCC staffer said that the item does not prescribe minimum backup battery life for IP phone service, but instead asks if there should be such mandates, what should they be, and who should be responsible for them in an effort to provide some clarity around backup power.

The FCC also tentatively concludes that carriers who want to discontinue a service used as a wholesale "input" should have to provide competitive carriers relying on that input access to equivalent wholesale access going forward. Those competitive carriers should also have to receive "sufficient notice" of when copper networks are being retired so their service to customers is not interrupted.

The FCC will also require, in a declaratory ruling, that networks must seek permission before discontinuing any service that had been supported by its copper plant.

Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly dissented strongly from the declaratory ruling, calling it a mother-may-I approach that required network operators to try and anticipate what services are being used, and how. They also dissented from the 911 item, and only concurred, with reservations even then, in the copper retirement item. Pai called the 911 item a "federal takeover" of the system. "I cannot support proposals we have no legal authority to adopt."  Wheeler called the suggestion that it was a federal power play a "red herring."

O'Rielly called it an overly broad, highly prescriptive approach to 911 service, and so "deeply flawed" that he can't support it.

Pai also said that by requiring networks to "seek permission from the FCC before discontinuing 'every [network] feature no matter how little-used or old-fashioned,' is micromanaging one side of the IP transition, while not the other."

"Imagine if Google had to seek regulatory permission to change features on Gmail or transition to Google Inbox. Or if Facebook had to beg permission before changing the layout of users’ News Feeds. Or if Twitter couldn’t make its mobile platform more user-friendly without the FCC’s say-so," he asked, echoing the arguments made about the impact of network neutrality rules on ISPs, but not edge providers Pai suggested the FCC move was a "chicken little" response to an IP transition sky that was not falling.

Pai also complained that the public did not get to weigh in on the decision—declaratory rulings do not require notice or comment, since the FCC is asserting authority it says it already has.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler countered that he was simply trying to honor the network compact with consumers by looking beyond filings and tarriffs to functions and the totality of services consumers should not lose in the move from copper to fiber.

He said the move was "beyond bouncing around from Chicken Little to Animal Farm" and was focusing on what consumers have a right to expect. He said the commission had a responsibilty to all Americans that in the much heralded and much promoted IP transition, consumers have "portability of expectations."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.