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House IP Hearing Highlights Some Common Concerns

There seemed to be a lot of agreement among the witnesses and legislators at a House Communications Subcommittee hearing Wednesday on the transition to internet protocol delivery of communications traffic.

There was general agreement that the switch from traditional circuit-switched networks to IP delivery was well underway, that the goal was consumer-friendly competitive networks, and even that there should be some IP transition trials.

But there were also the traditional divides between those arguing that incumbent network operators were trying to get out of interconnection and other mandates in the IP switch, and that regs continued to be necessary to require interconnection to the last mile controlled by those incumbents.

Rep. John Dingell (D- Mich.), for example, the most senior member of Congress and famous for peppering witnesses with a series of questions to be answered with a simple yes or no, instead took his time to say he thought the billions of dollars supporting legacy network architecture would be better used to support the IP backbone of the future and encouraged the FCC to get together and conduct the IP trials AT&T has proposed.

Harold Feld, from Public Knowledge, said his group and AT&T wanted the same thing, competitive networks, and also said he supported trials but was less sanguine about AT&T's model.

He said the FCC should take the lead and suggested consumers should not become guinea pigs in the tests, counseling for safeguards at the front end for public safety and connectivity.

Much of the hearing focused on how and whether regulation of traditional networks, particularly access (interconnection) mandates under Title II, should be applied to IP delivery, which expanded into general discussions of how the 1996 Telecommunications Act should or should not be reformed given the sea change in delivery taking place.

Witness Randolph May from the Free State Foundation said he thought the FCC needed to adopt a reactive rather than predictive approach, dealing with complaints as they happen, not trying to predict harms that may or may not materialize.

AT&T witness James Cicconi said that one of the reasons AT&T had proposed the geographic tests was to help determine what government role would be necessary to insure access in an already competitive IP delivery marketplace, but that old regs should not simply be grafted onto that new model.

He said AT&T did not view it as a flash cut to IP, that it would take until the end of the decade to retire copper lines, and that the company agreed that in an IP world services like 911 had to work. That was another reason for conducting the IP trials, he suggested.

Henry Waxman (D- Calif.) raised the issue whether the threat of legacy phone regs was what was keeping Google from offering phone service in markets, like Kansas City, where it is rolling out IP fiber-based video and broadband services. Cicconi said he thought that was the case. He said that the "regulatory overhang" of legacy regs on IP services affects their decisions on making investments.

The FCC in May sought input on how IP trials should be conducted, and Cicconi said that he thought there would be more progress on that front as soon as Tom Wheeler is installed as the new FCC chairman. One of the reasons AT&T proposed the trials, he said, was to try to light a fire under the FCC. He pointed out that it has been four years since the commission, in its National Broadband Plan, indicated the copper wire world was unsustainable and that investments in that legacy technology could be "stranded" in the new, IP, world.

Mark Iannuzzi, president of TelNet Worldwide, spoke for competitive carriers when he said that he needed the government to continue to insure he could connect to the last mile controlled by the 800 pound gorilla incumbents and at a fair price. He said he had built his company up from the "dirt" and would not have done so if he didn't think he would continue to have that guaranteed of interconnection.