Modern myths of moving away from the old telephone network

Jamal Simmons, Internet Innovation Alliance

Simmons

When night arrives in remote areas, the contrast to city life becomes clear. The absence of streetlights and skyscrapers might make some fear what lurks in the darkness.  

Fear of the unknown, however, is not limited to still nights in secluded locales. It can hold back American innovation and economic growth in the form of those who invoke bogeymen to scare consumers away from technological advances. That's happening today, as a dialogue is just beginning on how to upgrade and modernize the nation's old telephone networks to next generation high-speed Internet networks.       

Antiquated telephone networks were built to handle one-to-one voice communication, but modern fiber-based broadband networks can provide Internet, video and voice services. They enable everything from voice and text messages to social networks, video conferencing, online gaming, digital TV and streaming video. These modern fiber-based networks and services can unlock a world of opportunity, drive technological innovation, create and sustain new jobs, foster powerful economic growth, and spur immense capital investment so that the United States can continue to lead the world.

One of the nation's largest phone companies AT&T (NYSE: T) recently proposed to work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to roll out this new technology through real-life test trials in a couple of markets around the country.  AT&T seeks to engage federal regulators in a public and transparent process to help bring 21st century networks and services to American consumers. These cautious experiments would replicate the closely observed and very helpful FCC-sponsored DTV market trial in Wilmington, N.C., conducted in advance of the nationwide digital TV broadcasting switchover. When the Wilmington trial revealed a lack of significant switchover problems, the FCC and Congress proceeded more confidently to the nationwide transition, with consumer groups less fearful of the change. 

Geographically diverse but limited trials would give policy makers a controlled setting and real-time look at the impact of new fiber-based networks designed to replace the copper-based telephone network. The knowledge gained from these market trials would  enable the FCC to address any problems that might arise and help guide forward-looking policies to assist in the eventual transition to nationwide next-generation, high-speed broadband networks. 

Demonstration projects in selected markets would help create a clearer path for more efficient and effective private sector investment. These trials will also provide consumers with access to new services, while ensuring that those who seek to just maintain plain-old voice service have that option.

Market trials would provide the data necessary to understand the real impact of these modern fiber-based networks on consumers, and it would enable policy makers to determine how best to ensure universal service, 9-1-1 access and disability access on these new technologies. It's essential that no one be left behind and that each consumer continues to receive communications services at least as good, as reliable and as affordable as what he or she has today.

Protecting consumers does not mean imprisoning them with outdated networks. Important consumer services will continue after the transition to next-generation high-speed broadband networks is complete. The challenge for the FCC is resolving the policy questions that will enable the quick replacement of the antiquated telephone network with fiber-based networks, while acknowledging and ensuring the continuation of essential consumer services. 

Our nation shouldn't be inhibited by modern myths. As former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Commissioner Ajit Pai have noted, the shift from old telephone networks to modern broadband networks is already proving an incredible boon for consumers and for the American economy. Now is not the time for America to get spooked by the unknown. Let's test the transition, make any necessary adjustments and keep progressing forward.

Jamal Simmons, an advisor to corporate, nonprofit and political clients and former Clinton Administration appointee, is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.

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