The Federal Communications Commission granted approval Thursday for AT&T to conduct tests for a transition to an IP-based phone system. The decision, which invites other companies to participate, will allow experimentation with ways to move away from the current circuit-switching technology toward the next generation of telephony, which will also include video.
The Internet-based technology itself will not be the subject of the testing, since it is already being used. Instead, the emphasis would be on consumer acceptance and the performance of the technology under emergency conditions. There are also such issues as assignment of phone numbers when all phones live in an IP environment, also known as voice over IP, or VoIP. Other phone companies have until Feb. 20 to submit their own proposals, which will be voted on in May.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told news media that the effort "is a big deal," and called it "an important moment." Company participation is voluntary, although the FCC requires that the trials "cover areas with different population densities and demographics, different topologies, and/or different seasonal and meteorological conditions."
There have been complaints by some consumers about the quality of IP-based services and about their reliability. But the U.S. phone system is already in the process of transition from its copper-based network , given that over a third of phone users have cell phones as their only phone service. Under current policy, telcos have to maintain their plain old telephone service, or POTS, even as they build their next-gen system, which some FCC commissioners and industry observers contend is slowing down the investment needed to move toward a more advanced system.
On another front, the FCC is considering new governing rules that could affect Net neutrality. A federal appeals court recently ruled against the agency by blocking its ability to require that Internet providers treat all traffic equally. On Thursday, more than 80 public interest and consumer groups delivered a petition with 1 million signatures to the agency, urging it to "reassert its clear authority over our nation's communications infrastructure."
Million Signatures Are 'Boffo'
While the court's decision has been characterized by many reports as having overturned the FCC's non-discrimination and non-blocking rules, and thus negating its ability to enforce Net neutrality, the ruling also said the agency had the authority to do so -- if it proceeds to classify the Internet as a telecommunications service.
In accepting the petition, Chairman Wheeler told a press conference that his agency interprets "the court decision as an invitation and we will accept that invitation." He described the million signatures as "boffo."
Wheeler said the FCC is "looking at all the tools in the toolbox" and that it would release a plan of action soon. However, it's not yet clear if the plan will be comprehensive, such as reclassifying Internet service, or, as Wheeler has implied previously, it may come down to case-by-case decisions.