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What Role Should the FCC Play as Telecoms Move to VoIP?


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February 20, 2013

What Role Should the FCC Play as Telecoms Move to VoIP?

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Contributor

As the telecommunications industry moves closer to an all-IP-based network architecture, there’s fierce debate over the role that the Federal Communications Commission should play in regulating the new technology.

The FCC (News - Alert) regulates telecommunications providers under Title II of the Communications Act, wireless carriers under Title III of the act, and cable operators under Title VI, with Voice-over-IP (VoIP) classified as “information services” under Title II, according to an article earlier this year in Bloomberg BNA.

VoIP currently avoids the FCC regulations that accompany copper wire-based telecommunications, and AT&T (News - Alert) would like telecommunications in general to stay lightly regulated as it moves away from copper wires and toward VoIP as the standard.

Last November, AT&T filed a petition with the TCC to establish test zones where regulations left over from the Ma Bell era should no longer apply, according to the Bloomberg article. The rules underpinning the old monopoly telephone network should expire with an industry-wide transition to IP, and the FCC should declare that these new networks are “subject to minimal regulation only at the federal level,” AT&T petitioned.

The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA (News - Alert)), a group that represents rural providers, also filed a petition.

In its petition, the NTCA requested agency rulemaking to “examine means of promoting and sustaining the ongoing evolution of the public switched telephone network…to an IP-based infrastructure through targeted regulatory relief and the establishment of tailored near-term economic incentives,” reported the Bloomberg article.

Incentives of that sort, argued the NTCA, would allow phone companies to recover the costs of carrying IP traffic on their networks and providing “sufficient and predictable” universal service support for providing “standalone” broadband internet service to rural America, the NTCA noted.

IP interconnection regulation is one thorny issue. Currently, Section 251(a) of the act requires every “telecommunications carrier” to interconnect directly or indirectly with “other telecommunications carriers.” But AT&T argues that this is unnecessary with VoIP, and the FCC lacks the authority anyway since VoIP is classified as an “information service.”

But others disagree.

COMPTEL, a Washington-based trade organization for smaller telephone companies that compete with AT&T and Verizon (News - Alert) Communications, thinks that regulation still is necessary.

“As the commission explained [in its ICC Transformation Order, adopted October 2011], the 'duty to negotiate in good faith has been a longstanding element of interconnection requirements under the Communications Act and does not depend upon the network technology underlying the interconnection, whether TDM [time-division multiplexing], IP or otherwise,” COMPTEL (News - Alert) wrote.

The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which represents small wireless carriers, also backs the COMPTEL argument. In its comments, it noted that the FCC must reaffirm incumbents' obligation to interconnect their networks and exchange traffic on “just, reasonable, and cost-based terms and conditions.”

Some, such as the Independent Telephone and Telecommunications Alliance (ITTA), think that the commission should rely on industry guidelines to govern IP-to-IP interconnection obligations, while preserving the option for providers to pursue resolution of controversial matters through the FCC enforcement processes.

So, basically, it is early days and nobody is sure what role the FCC will play as the industry moves toward VoIP as the standard for telecommunications.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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