Last Thursday, I was an online participant in the US Telecom policy briefing entitled "[w]hat's the point of voice regulation?" The format was a panel discussion where the U.S. Telecom General Counsel, Jonathan Banks, provided topics for the panelists to discuss. The panelists were Jonathan Nuechterlein, Professor John Mayo from Georgetown, and Harold Feld from Public Knowledge. All of the panel participants did an excellent job of presenting the point of view from each of their areas of expertise.
One area on which the panelists had differing, but not mutually exclusive, views was regarding the reliability value of the TDM copper voice network. One the one hand, as Professor Mayo noted, the consumer "market" seems to have spoken with the result being that consumers are willing to trade the higher functionality of the IP/broadband network for the reliability of the TDM network. After all, everyone can name some of products that we would still like to purchase but that the "market" does not want to produce any more.
Yet, Harold Feld also made a very good point--explaining that the "reliability vs. functionality" is a false dichotomy because consumers do not willingly make this trade. For example, since consumers lose electric power on relatively few days, the value of reliable connectivity in emergency situations is not accurately taken into account by "the market."
Without saying so, the panelists seemed to agree that regulation intended to achieve social goals--such as the public safety and security interest in more reliable, more resilient networks--is something that should be addressed separately from the issue of whether economic regulations should apply to some or all providers of voice service. This is an intriguing starting point for a discussion about next generation network reliability, and a starting point that has taken too long to arrive.
Two Sides of the False Dichotomy
As Harold noted, at Thursday's panel discussion, it is a "false dichotomy" to think that a useful regulatory goal (i.e., network resilience in times of extreme weather, or other natural disasters) must be abandoned simply because the first generation of IP network technology may not be able to support this goal. It is no less of a "false dichotomy", though, for some to use "public safety" as an excuse to keep some service providers from continuing to transition their networks for the uses demanded by the majority of consumers both today, and in the future.
So, if public safety and network reliability are the goals, then they must be discussed and considered not in the context of keeping an older, more limited technology, but rather in the context of how network reliability can evolve to support the communications networks of tomorrow. Given that no one is going to pay for a separate network to support a limited functionality (just voice) in times of emergency, how do we get public safety and security for the networks of tomorrow?
Look Outside the Regulatory Silos of Today
Perhaps, more than any other explanation, the major concern identified by those opposed to immediately undertaking an effort to begin to identify and work through the regulatory issues resulting from the IP transition is that of public safety during weather (and other natural disaster) emergencies. This is an incredibly important and valuable part of any transition to a broadband world. But, here's the problem: the FCC can't get there on its own, because the best solution might be a "meta" solution where we look at the reliability of communications networks in the context of other inter-dependent networks, such as electric power.
But, given that new platforms demand much more energy than could ever be provided by a central office battery back-up, we can't look back. Just because this effort would need to be championed across separate regulatory fiefdoms does not mean it can't happen, it just means that diverse regulators need to call on the Executive Branch to coordinate this planning.
In other words, if we (as a country) agree that the service rich broadband platform is the communications network that we want, then ensuring reliability of that network may only be possible if we look to ensure greater reliability in the increasingly inter-dependent electric and communications networks. Said differently, looking at a policy question in the context of an "outdated" regulatory/technological framework (i.e., with tools only available to the legacy communications regulator) will necessarily cheat the public out of the best answer.
Advantages of Cross-Network Optimization
If it turns out that investing in bolstering the reliability of our electric distribution plant will improve communications networks (which are also banking, health, and educational networks), one obvious advantage to such an approach is that electricity distribution is (for all but the heaviest users) still a monopoly. Perhaps the only significant advantage of a monopoly--for consumers and regulators--is that local energy companies still have rate-payers and a more or less captive rate base. Thus, the costs of increasing electric network reliability (by either burying power lines, or developing batteries that are small enough for homes yet can store a significant amount of back-up power) can be equitably spread over all customers--a solution that is no longer available to state or federal communications regulators.
The "all IP", "Internet of everything", future that promises so much benefit to our productivity and welfare as a society cannot deliver on this promise if delivery/reliability are subject to something as capricious as the weather. Shouldn't questions of public safety and security through increasing network reliability also begin to be asked by someone (perhaps chartered by the Administration) that is capable of addressing these problems on a national, inter-network basis?