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AT&T to FCC: Time to end yesterday's network

'Net Insider By Scott Bradner, Network World
January 13, 2010 11:12 AM ET


The FCC last month asked for comments on the "transition from circuit-switched network to all-IP network."

Aside from the factually incorrect title (there is more than one circuit-switched network and there will be more than one all-IP network), this request for information is likely to produce interesting, and maybe useful, results.


I have not been able to find a repository of responses on the FCC Web site (logically there should be one) but searching the Web does result in finding a number of responses posted by the responders themselves or by others. The response that has gotten the most press has been AT&T's, but Cablevision, the CTIA, the National Cable & telecommunications Association  and the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies have also responded.


Some responses, AT&T's included, asked for the FCC to set a date when the old telephone network should die. This seems to be a poor idea to me. I can understand a rule to say that a phone company must be able to exchange calls over IP by a certain date, but why should it make any difference how that phone company actually uses old-fashioned circuit-switched technology within its network?


The more serious question that AT&T is posing concerns when it can be relieved of the requirement to support circuit-switched services for its existing customers. I'm not sure that this is even a legit question. Maybe the question should be: "How long must a telephone company that has had essentially a protected monopoly continue to provide services that its existing customers can use with their existing phones?" I have no reason to care how AT&T might implement a voice service as long as my mother's phone can still work. Since many VoIP services today, for example Vonage, work by having a small box that connects an "old" telephone to an IP network, this should not be a big deal. Unless, of course, the real question from AT&T is: "When can we stop serving those currently low-value customers that enabled us to exist all these years?"


A number of responses pointed out that universal service, as currently implemented, depends on overcharging people who have old-style, switched-circuit telephone service. If that overcharging were to go away, then universal service would be in a world of hurt. But, because universal service is basically a way that the Feds have developed to tax some phone users to pay telephone companies outrageous fees to do what they should be doing anyway, I fully expect that the FCC will figure out some way to keep the gravy flowing.


There is one very basic flaw in all the responses I found and, to some degree, in the FCC request. There seems to be an assumption that customers will get voice service from whatever company is providing their broadband service. One of the most important features of the Internet is that there is no requirement for any such binding. With VoIP there is no technical reason for the big carriers to stick to their own territories and there is no technical reason for a customer of an AT&T broadband service not to subscribe to Vonage or any other voice service. That is unless Congress and the FCC fail at their public interest responsibilities and leave us all serfs of whatever carrier brings us the bits -- but that is not a technical issue.


Disclaimer: There are major parts of Harvard that deal with Layer 9 (political layer) issues but I have not seen any official opinion on this topic, so the above observation and review is my own.

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