The ‘next generation’ of American talk

By Rick Boucher
April 1, 2013

It’s hard to imagine communicating without Skype, Facetime, X-Box, Twitter or a text on your smartphone. Mobile devices and other Internet Protocol (IP)-based services powered by high-speed broadband have revolutionized the way we connect with one another at just about every moment of our lives.

Millions of Americans are now abandoning traditional, copper-wire phone service. In just the past three years, U.S. smartphone adoption has increased from 16.9 percent to 54.9 percent, according to Nielsen. One out of three homes in the United States now relies on wireless-only technologies, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

Copper telephone technology has limited capabilities. It falls short in providing robust, high-speed Internet services that support IP-enabled applications such as Voice over Internet Protocol. Nor can it offer the next-generation healthcare, education and public-safety IP-based applications that consumers demand. Shifting our nation’s communications networks to all-IP is critical to ensuring consumer access to the most modern communications services.

As with the adoption of any new technology, the move to IP networks offers challenges and opportunities. A majority of Americans have already changed from voice-only telephone networks. Roughly 93 percent of U.S. households subscribed to switched-access phone service a decade ago, according to USTelecom, today it’s less than one-third and is projected to decline to one-quarter of households by the end of 2013.

Moving the dwindling number of consumers still on copper technology will likely require a public-private partnership that can ensure no one is left behind while also providing access to affordable 21st century technologies.

The Federal Communications Commission has begun reforming rules and expanding broadband access across America. Its recent restructuring of the Universal Service Fund, for example, made deployment to unserved areas economically feasible by transferring existing federal subsidies from voice-only copper networks to the build-out of broadband IP-based networks.

The government should continue to encourage investment in this transition. In AT&T’s 22-state wire-line service area, for example, only one in four customers subscribes to legacy phone service where it is available, yet by law the company must continue offering this to 100 percent of its customers. Every dollar that local telephone companies uses to maintain antiquated copper telephone networks is at the expense of investment in newer, more capable IP networks. Our country needs to speed up the IP transition to effectively compete with other nations.

The FCC acknowledged this when its Technical Advisory Council in 2011 recommended that, in the interest of promoting broadband expansion, the traditional copper-wire telephone network should be retired by 2018. A new approach, the council suggested, is necessary to unleash the innovation and investment that could result from accelerating the IP transition.

As a first step, the FCC should authorize monitored trials in select markets where people are rapidly moved from copper networks to IP networks. The commission can use these test areas to help identify potential problems and devise fixes before a nationwide transition occurs.

As the shift proceeds, everyone should be guaranteed voice service at least as good and as affordable as their existing service.

The bedrock principle must be that no one is left behind. We must ensure continued access to quality communications services for the hearing- and vision-impaired. Access to public-safety services must also remain universal. The means to meet these goals, while accelerating the move away from century-old copper networks, can be refined in the test regions.

The United States is known as the land of opportunity and innovation. IP-based networks hold the promise of enhancing quality of life, spurring job creation and advancing economic growth. Government and industry must work together to ensure that the benefits and opportunities of next-generation networks and services become widespread and available to all.

One thing is for sure: More changes in technology are coming. The next big thing may be just around the corner ‑- and soon in your pocket.

 

PHOTO (Top): A tourist takes a photo of Saint Peter’s Basilica with a mobile phone at the Vatican March 18, 2013. REUTERS/Paul Hanna

PHOTO (Insert): An employee of Swiss telecom company Swisscom AG displays a HTC One XL smartphone for use with the new ultra-fast mobile broadband 4G network, November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

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