Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 32

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 32 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast with Harold Feld from Public Knowledge on the five fundamentals for telecommunication systems. Listen to this episode here.



Lisa Gonzalez:  Welcome to the 32nd episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  I'm Lisa Gonzalez.

Recently, AT&T filed a petition to reduce regulations that apply to the telephone service.  Public Knowledge and several other organizations recently filed responses to that petition.  This week, we have a return visit from Harold Feld of Public Knowledge.  He and Christopher discuss what he describes as the Five Fundamental Principles that have guided telephone policy in the past.  Harold discusses how technology has changed services, and why we need to mindful to preserve the fundamentals as we respond to those changes.  We should note that when Harold talks about "IP," he means Internet protocol, which is a means of transmitting data by breaking it into packets to transmit the information.  In the past, our phones used time-division multiplexing.  You can quickly learn more details about the different technologies with a quick Internet search.

Now, here are Christopher and Harold.


Chris Mitchell:  Welcome back to Community Broadband Bits, Harold.  You are the Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge, and a veteran of this show.  So, we're excited to learn more about this filing.


Harold Feld:  Yeah.  Well, thanks very much for having me back.


Chris:  So, a few months ago, AT&T filed a petition with the FCC that led to some concern regarding the future of regulation and how we use telecommunications.  And then the organization that represents rural cooperatives also submitted a petition.  And, just recently, you submitted a response.  And I found it really interesting.  And I'm looking forward to learning what you think the FCC should do in these matters moving forward.


Harold:  Yeah.  Well, thanks very much.  What's going on right now is, we are in the process of upgrading our national communications network.  We used to have a traditional phone network.  In the last -- then we came to a point where we started layering on top of that our Internet Protocol, or IP-based, networks.  Now, the companies are shifting entirely away from the old telephone-type technologies -- something that was called "Time Division Multiplexing," TDM, and are shifting to this new Internet Protocol, or IP, technology.

Now, normally, we would look on that as, OK, you know.  That's a technical transition.  We've had them before with the phone network.  When we went in them, people -- if you watch old movies, you know, we had, you know, switchboard -- Mabel at the switchboard.  And then we started putting in switches to do that automatically.  And we've constantly upgraded.  But -- you know, it takes a little bit of work, but normally, it's no big deal for the rest of the public.  What makes it different this time is that, for the last ten years, the FCC has made a bunch of decisions about how we treat our phone networks -- how we regulate them, what rules apply -- that are based very much on the specific technology, or the means of the network.  So, if you were a traditional TDM network, you had one set of rules.  If you were a traditional TDM network but were over fiber instead of over copper, you had a different set of rules.  If you were a voice-over-IP network over copper, you had a different set of rules.  And if you were a voice-over-IP, or VoIP, over fiber or something else, you might have a different set of rules.

So, AT&T, now having made a commitment to upgrade its entire network to being all-IP, has gone to the FCC and said, look, we're going to be all-IP, we're not going to be that old telephone system anymore.  And therefore, all of the old telephone ought to go away.  Maybe we need some rules for the phone system -- the new, exciting, all-IP phone system -- but we certainly don't need any of the OLD rules.  And, FCC, we're asking you to basically declare that a whole bunch of rules that have applied until now won't apply to us anymore, once we convert our network to an all-IP network.


Chris:  And some of these rules, actually, are -- or, you know, they were, actually, more traditions -- even -- probably -- before they were rules.  Right?  I mean, these things go back decades before the FCC was even formed, I'm guessing.


Harold:  Oh, yes.  And, you know, the -- it's -- we have a hundred-year Social Contract that runs between the phone networks and the people of the United States, that goes back to something called the Kingsbury Commitment, which was a commitment that the old AT&T system made, back 100 years ago, in order to get the monopoly that they were ultimately given on telephone service in the country.

And this set of Five Fundamental Principles, which produce many of these rules, has guided the development of the phone network.  It, you know, was critical to making sure that the phone network was something that -- you know, in the United States, that everybody benefited from.  And made our phone network, for a very long time, the envy of the world.  And as we move forward on this, we have tried to bring the discussion back to what we think is the right discussion, which is about these Five Fundamental Principles.  Rather than being the discussion that AT&T and some others would like to have, which is about regulation versus deregulation.


Chris:  Right.  They really want to focus on the idea that these regulations are OLD, as opposed to what the regulations are.  And so, in a minute, I think we'll step through the Five Fundamentals.  Those who want to get -- who want to read it -- I really encourage you to read the Public Knowledge filing.  We're going to put it up on our site.  And I'm sure it will be available in a lot of other places.  But it's got a 10-page summary to start, that reads really quickly.  It's very accessible.  And it includes the term "pixie dust."  So it comes very highly recommended.


Harold:  And if that's too much for you, we have a one-page blog post that summarizes it even more.  So --


Chris:  The first one, I think, appropriately enough, is universal service.


Harold:  That's right.


Chris:  So, can you tell me why that's important?


Harold:  Well, this is Access to all Americans.  It's broader than what we think of traditionally as universal service.  But this had been the core principle of our communications networks for a hundred years.  This was the promise that AT&T made in order to get their monopoly.  The importance of making sure that all Americans share in a communications network that links our country together.  Actually, historically, it goes back to the founding of the nation, where the Post Office and the Postmaster General was one of the first Cabinet-level positions, because at that time, it was so important that we have a national postal system, so that everybody could communicate with each other.  And this is really, we think, the -- one of the most important features of our modern communication system.  We must not become the first industrial nation to walk back from our commitment to 100 percent access -- accessibility in service.  There was a -- you know, there have been some times when people have suggested, well, you know, rural areas are going to be too expensive.  And some people are just never going to be able to afford it.  And, therefore, you know, 98 percent -- or 95 percent -- ought to be good enough.  And our feeling is, absolutely not.  If there is one thing that we have stood for in this country for a hundred years, it is that everybody gets access to the essential communications technologies.  The technology evolves, but the need does not.


Chris:  And we're talking about real access, as opposed to what -- once again, I think -- AT&T wants to speak -- and they're not alone -- certainly other phone companies as well -- they want to talk in generalities.  Whereas we want a specific.  We want to know that people have access.


Harold:  Yes.


Chris:  We don't want to know that my wife's parents can use a cell phone in their yard.  We want to make sure that in every room of their house they're able to have access, to communicate.


Harold:  Right.  Well, this is the -- our feeling at Public Knowledge -- we didn't, at this early stage, get too much into the weeds on the proposal.  We think that it's important to -- you know, to establish the framework first.  But this is absolutely correct.  Right now, our feeling is that you cannot turn off the traditional copper network unless you have a network in place that does the same thing or better.  So, right now, wherever you live, you can say, to whoever is the carrier that is given your franchise area, you've got to come out here and give me a copper line.  So if we're going to replace that with something wireless, everybody in that -- in the service region is going to get that wireless, and a quality of service that is equivalent to what they have now on the copper line, or better.  And it has to be affordable.  Because it's not going to do you any good to say, well, we turned off your $40-a-month copper service, for basic voice; and now, in order to have any kind of service, you need to subscribe to our $120-a-month home wireless package.  And the voice part of it costs $40.  But you can't get the voice part of it separately.  You know.  That's not going to be good enough.  If somebody can only afford, you know, a basic voice package, that basic voice package has to be affordable and accessible to everyone.

It's the same thing for the deaf and hearing-aid compatible, and others with physical disabilities.  One of our social commitments has been to make sure that our phone system provides service to people regardless of physical disability.  We need to maintain that.  And we need to ensure that communities that have been traditionally marginalized, and that have traditionally not enjoyed the benefits of these technologies have that access to these technologies.  So, minority communities, other communities that are frequently left out, or are included only as an afterthought, we need to make sure that those communities are benefiting from this upgrade as well.


Chris:  And I think that brings us to number two, which is to say that solving some of those problems, making sure that everyone's connected, may mean new kinds of networks.  And point number two is that they have to be able to connect to the existing networks.


Harold:  Right.  We call this Interconnection and Competition.  One of the things that has actually changed in the last hundred years is that we made a switch from regarding telephone service as a natural monopoly to something where you could have competitors and eliminate some regulation -- some may say that we've eliminated too many, but whatever -- we would decide that we wanted competition.  Competition would be a good way to make sure that technology continues to be innovative.  Competition would bring other benefits.  So, we made a decision to set up a regulatory structure that encourages competition.  And that is through something called Interconnection, which is a basic rule that says, any communications network has to connect to any other communications network that asks.  You can't say, no, I'm not going to connect to you, I'm not going to terminate your calls, or let you call people on my network, because you're my commercial rival; and, therefore, I'm not going to pass though you calls.  Or, yeah, I'll pass through your calls, but in such a crappy way that -- poor way that, you know, you might as well not bother to try.  This not only facilitates competition in a lot of rural areas.  It's the basic -- it's the way in which people served.  You have a lot of places where, even at the height of the AT&T monopoly, Ma Bell didn't want to go, because it was very expensive to serve those areas.  So one of the fundamental principles that they agreed to was Interconnection.  So that rural co-ops and municipal telecom providers, and others who are out there actually providing service on the ground can connect to the network and have their calls completed anywhere in the country.  So this principle also very much needs to be preserved.


Chris:  So we start with Universal Service.  We move on to Interconnection and Competition.  What's number three?


Harold:  Number three is Consumer Protections.  We have, in this country, enjoyed very good laws on our phone system for so long that we just take them for granted.  But the fact that a phone call is private, unless you go to a court and get a warrant.  And the phone company can't look and see how many times I send out for pizza, and then start sending me pizza ads.  Or, you know, directly saying, hey, I noticed you called Domino's.  Maybe you'd like to try Little Caesar instead.  You're not allowed to do that because we have very strong consumer protection laws on the phone system.

You know, we have truth in billing rules that require the phone company to obey certain rules about how they bill for things.  We have rules against something called "slamming and cramming," which prevent you from being charged for services or having your phone switched without your permission.  So, all of these are very important consumer protections.  We have to make sure that, as we upgrade the network, that these protections are not lost.  That saying, oh, well, it's an all-IP network, it's an all-new network, and there'll be lots of competition, and everything will work out just fine.  Yeah, that's OK.  But, you know what?  Competition doesn't automatically protect consumers.  Anybody who's ever shopped for a used car knows that used cars are the most competitive market in the world, and we need lemon laws and other things  to protect us, even though we've got as much competition as you could possibly want.  So, even if we said this is competitive, we would still need consumer protection.  And that's fundamental principle number three.


Chris:  Right.  And, interestingly enough, number four, actually, just ties right into that lemon law, which is the Network Reliability --


Harold:  Yes.


Chris:  Making sure that these things work when we need them to.


Harold:  Right.  I mean, this is, again, one of these things that we have had a phone system that works reliably well in this country for so long that we just expect that to naturally happen.  We don't recognize that the reason we have that is because we have all kinds of regulations that mandate reliability, and that makes sure that the phone system works the same way for everybody all the time.  You pick it up, you dial that phone number, you get connected.  It always works.  And we originally had it so that, you know, the network was self-powered, and it would work even when you had a blackout.  Because we recognized that if there's an emergency, you need to be able to rely on this network.  Even if it's not an emergency, in order to be able to use it on a regular basis, you need to rely on it.

We have not done the same thing in these IP networks.  And, increasingly, people are starting to notice.  People noticed that, in Hurricane Sandy, that, you know, if you could find a pay phone, that was connected to the old copper network, you could get a -- make a call on that.  But your cell phone probably didn't work, because the local cell phone infrastructure was down or didn't have power.  The -- you know, even when it's not a storm, we just had AT&T experience a software glich, as they updated U-Verse.  And, you know, 70,000 customers were without telephone service for a couple of days.  The -- one of the people that was interviewed for these articles said, well, you know, that old copper line that you used to have -- that old landline that you used to have -- where you picked it up and it always worked, I guess that's not happening anymore.  And the answer is, yeah, it's not happening anymore, because we have not made the policy choices that make it happen.  And, as part of this transition, the answer is not to get Americans to accept a less reliable network.  The answer is to require that IP networks be reliable.


Chris:  So, the final item -- once again, it sort of ties in with that reliability, but it's a little more specific, in terms of -- Public Safety.  And I think you tie in some burglary systems -- and some of the other things that we tend to forget -- depend on the network as it works right now.


Harold:  That's right.  And a lot of our safety codes and building codes depend on the existence of a traditional phone line.  Now, in part, that's because of its reliability.  But on top of that, there's just the fact that the IP technology enables what people are calling the next generation of 9-1-1.  In fact, you know, many people have recognized how this technological upgrade can facilitate and improve our 9-1-1 system.  Although, I point out, we just had an incident here, in the mid-Atlantic region, where, in a sudden windstorm, we had a massive 9-1-1 failure.  So, we need to make sure that our 9-1-1 system -- even more so than the rest of the network -- is always on and always working.

As we move forward, since we're already kind of working on this next generation 0-1-1, the big challenge here, in part, is to make sure that the decisions and the technologies that we use for 9-1-1 implementation -- next-generation 9-1-1 implementation -- don't need to be altered or retrofitted once we get the rest of the network upgraded.  And we're kind of doing all these very complicated things at the same time, and one of the things about having a framework like this is that we've said, look, if you have a framework like this, first of all, you have a checklist, to make sure that you're making all the parts work together.  And it also gives you a checklist against any proposal.  So, if you have -- AT&T comes and says, well, we want you to get rid of this set of regulations, 'cause we think they're not necessary, you say, all right; well, let me pull up my checklist.  And does the change impact Service to all Americans?  Is everybody still going to have, you know, the same quality of service when I -- when we give you this change?  Is this going to hurt Competition?  Or is this going to continue to allow Interconnection to happen?  Is this still going to protect consumers sin the same way?  Is this -- is it going to make it -- the network less Reliable?  And, is 9-1-1 still going to work?  So, you know, if the answer to those is, you know, it checks out just fine, then, sure, we should make changes.  If not, then we need to figure out how we're going to make sure that all of these, you know, long-standing social obligations, that have been part of the phone network, and that we all rely on, are going to continue.


Chris:  And you finish up the filing with something that's very near and dear to my heart, which is a recognition of the role that states and local authorities should play in enforcing these Five Fundamentals.  And, in particular, something that we're always a fan of at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is this idea of floors, not ceilings.  Which is to say, if I read it correctly, that the FCC should be stepping in if a state is not stepping up to provide the Five Fundamentals, then the FCC should guarantee them.  But, presumably, if the state wanted to go a little bit further and -- in terms of how it identifies some of these pieces -- then it should probably have that authority.


Harold:  Absolutely.  And, you know, look, there's an unfortunate myth in Washington, DC, that is often pushed by industry folks who hate regulation, where they say, oh, you know, we just need one national policy.  And we need to not let these terrible state and local governments get in the way.  And, you know -- and, you know, it's simply not true.  I mean, first of all, state and local governments are -- provide vital information and services about the local conditions.  We can have a national framework -- and I think we must -- that provides a floor, as you said, for our national telecommunications system.  But how you implement that on the ground.  People who are actually there at the state level and the local level are in a much better position to understand how that's going to work.  And to make it work to fit the peculiarities of that local situation.  The role of the national government ought to be to provide, you know, as you say, a floor, and a basic framework, and then local governments come in.

The other is a very practical question.  You know, you look at what's going on, you know, today, in a standard situation.  And state and local authorities process hundreds of routine complaints and problems and issues, and resolve disputes.  There is just no way the FCC could keep up with all of those.  I mean, not if you doubled and tripled and quadrupled their budget could they absorb all of the decisions and problems that are resolved at the state and local level.  So, I get that it's very tempting to these guys, as a -- who see themselves as, you know, we have all of this regulation, let's get rid of that.  But the reality is that you really want to keep this at a local level, where you can, and not up to a national level, except for where you have to.


Chris:  We actually -- we have evidence of that in the statewide franchising, where states like North Carolina and California, that move to a statewide franchising, didn't bother to establish a statewide office for submitting complaints.  And so, consumers have literally nowhere to go, in those states, for their cable service complaints anymore, whereas they used to be able to go to their city.


Harold:  Yup.  And that happened also in 1984, when Congress decided to take local franchising authority pretty much out of the equation.  And it was just a disaster.  And a lot of the 1992 Act -- the 1992 Cable Act -- was about trying to correct those mistakes, and putting, you know, local government back in.  The problem is, in Washington, we have to keep relearning the same lesson.  People -- you know, lobbyists for the special interests come in and they say, oh, preempt the states.  One national policy.  And then it all goes to hell.  And the people back home tell their members of Congress, you know, do something about this.  Make this happen.  You know.  I can't get my service anymore.  And then people come back and they put local government back in.  I think it would save us an awful lot of time, this time around, if we didn't have to make that mistake again, and if we just left state and local government in the actual equation.


Chris:  Thank you so much, Harold.  I'm really appreciative of not just coming on the show to explain it, but that you're making this so accessible.  I mean, talking about it in terms of Five Fundamentals, where we can understand exactly what we're talking about.  It's just a terrific framework.  So, thank you so much.


Harold:  Thank you very much.


Lisa:  That was Christopher, interviewing Harold Feld of Public Knowledge.  As mentioned early in the interview, you can read a summary of the Five Fundamentals, and the actual filing on the Public Knowledge policy blog, at .  We encourage you to also explore the Public Knowledge website for info on issues such as net neutrality, promoting innovation, and protecting creative rights.  If you have any questions or comments, please send us a note.  E-mail us at .  Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets .  This show was released on February 5th, 2013.  Thanks to the mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.  The song is called, "Bodacious."