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Wheeler Puts Digital Networks on Fast Track | Commentary

Off to a quick start, 2014 is sure to be an eventful year for national telecommunications policy. The leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has initiated a yearlong process to evaluate the need for comprehensive statutory telecommunications reform. Simultaneously, the Federal Communications Commission has started a groundbreaking project that will lead to the complete transition of communications users from outdated, single-purpose telephone technology to modern, multifunction Internet-based technologies.

Under new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the commission began the new year by mapping out the transition process, which will enable more Americans to enjoy the full benefits of Internet connectivity on high-speed broadband networks.

Today, the FCC is both catching up and leading. It must catch up to the large majority of Americans who have made their own personal transition to smartphones, tablets and other devices that provide 24/7 connectivity to the Internet and its treasure trove of information and entertainment. At the same time, the agency also must lead by joining Congress in crafting an updated regulatory framework that supports continued innovation and network expansion and extending a helping hand to guide the minority of Americans who have not yet joined the digital world.

To complete the journey, Congress and the FCC must clear the road of outdated rules that made sense for the telephone monopoly era of the 20th century but which now slow the shift to the multitasking digital networks of the future. For example, the old rules require local phone companies to invest billions of dollars every year in the old voice telephone network that droves of Americans abandon every day. Every dollar spent on the aging, single-purpose analog phone system consumers are fleeing is one less dollar invested in multifunctional modern digital networks consumers prefer.

Indeed, the FCC’s own National Broadband Plan said nearly four years ago that keeping up the old network “siphon[s] investment from new networks and services” and is “not sustainable.” More than two years ago, the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council, then chaired by Wheeler as an outside adviser, said the old network should be shut down by 2018.

But completing the shift is far more complicated than flipping a switch. For all of its benefits, the move to a modern, high-speed broadband infrastructure that seamlessly links all of our devices, services and apps can have negative effects for individual consumers if not done properly. For example, some late adopters — mostly older citizens and the less affluent — might struggle to understand how it all works. Their needs must be considered, and they must not be left behind.

Specific core consumer values must also be retained. All consumers should be connected with services at the end of the transition that are at least as good as what they have now. Access to first responders and access for the vision or hearing impaired must be assured. Competition must be encouraged, and consumers must have a place for ready resolution of complaints regarding services. Backup plans to keep networks working through power failures and natural disasters should also be on the list of critical objectives.

The commission appears to be on the right path with a commitment to local market demonstration projects that will test what happens when consumers remaining on the old network are rapidly transitioned to a modern network arrangement. With trials in carefully selected local markets, the FCC will learn what can go wrong and ensure that remedies are in place prior to a full-scale national transition.

As the House Energy and Commerce Committee embarks on its deep dive into the need for telecommunications statutory and regulatory reform, this month the FCC is considering a detailed plan for moving forward with IP trials, bringing us one step closer to the time when every American is connected to a reliable, high-speed network designed for broadband voice, video and Internet service. Both of these initiatives bring us a step closer to modernizing America’s outmoded communications laws and the antiquated telephone network; thus, policymakers are — to our benefit — taking the right steps toward ensuring that all Americans continue to have access to next-generation technologies and services.

Rick Boucher served for 28 years as a member of the House, where he co-founded the Congressional Internet Caucus and chaired the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. Today he is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and heads the government strategies practice at the law firm Sidley Austin, which represents communications companies among other clients.

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