Our Bogus ‘Debate’ About PSTN Trials.

One of the more common and frustrating problems in Policyland is when a debate over something vital and important gets hijacked for broader agendas. Or, as we call this in Washington, any day of the week on any issue.

 

Case in point, AT&T’s much debated proposal to do some form of trial or pilot program (or series of same) to move forward as part of AT&T’s plan to upgrade its networks from traditional TDM-based copper to VOIP in some spots and to retire copper in favor of wireless only in other places. This debate over whether to conduct trials has become the proxy war for AT&T and its allies who want carte blanche to move forward with the conversion without much regulatory supervision (and use the conversion to eliminate most regulatory oversight) on the one hand, and those who see the the conversion of the PSTN primarily as a bid by AT&T to eliminate all regulatory oversight on the other.

 

The problem with the usual fun and games is that, as anyone following the Fire Island Voice Link Debacle should realize, this is much too important to play around with the usual fun and games. This stuff needs to actually work. Meanwhile, FCC Staff, who are actually doing their job, get crapped on by both sides as either standing in the way of progress by moving too slowly or being handmaidens to AT&T for moving at all.

 

My PK Colleague Jodie Griffen tried to make this point politely a few weeks ago by expressing our disappointment with AT&T’s failure to put forward a substantive detailed proposal, and providing some general principles for what we actually need to see in a real proposal. I am going to be much more blunt: we need to stop dicking around on this. AT&T needs to actually put in a real proposal that passes the laugh test or stop pretending this is an actual effort to gather real information. On the flip side, opponents of AT&T’s deregulatory efforts need to stop thinking that conducting any kind of trial is tantamount to totally deregulating the phone system so it must be resisted at all costs.

 

More ranting, and the kind of trials I think we need to start doing, below . . . .

If this were a new vaccine, no one would be saying  “Vaccines can cure all disease and bring untold benefits to mankind. Millions of people get vaccinated every year. And the best way to test our latest vaccine is to let us pick three cities to start marketing.” And then, when the FDA looks at you like you are a total irresponsible nutbar, loudly lament how that stupid old FDA hates vaccines and doesn’t want to cure disease because they like approving new drugs all the time.

 

But that is essentially what AT&T and its supporters have been doing. Yes, everyone agrees that IP-based technologies and wireless technologies can be useful, uber cool, etc. Many of us also think that before totally eliminating the traditional copper safety net, we ought to test certain aspects of these technologies to see if they can handle being not just a competitive alternative, but the only product in the market. But every time anyone asks AT&T for actual details on how they want to construct a trial or pilot program and what sort of data it would produce and with what safeguards, etc. AT&T has no answer.

 

Worse, the one part of AT&T’s trial program they apparently have thought about is how much regulatory freedom they want. Lots. It is highly disturbing that when explicitly asked in the FCC’s public notice for details on proposed trials, AT&T’s response boiled down to: ‘here’s a detail, you give us permission to do what we want then go home. We’ll let you know how it all worked out.’

 

If this were an application to the National Science Foundation (NSF) it would read like this: “Dear NSF, give me $1 billion and I promise to do cool stuff. No, I don’t think any reporting requirements or deadlines or benchmarks for success or even a friggin’ protocol design are a good idea. You can’t rush genius, and I promise it will be really cool. P.S., if you don’t give me the money, you are total losers who hate technology.” When asked for further details, AT&T replied: “You can send us a check OR electronic deposit. See, we’re flexible and accommodating!”

 

So let us please stop pretending that it is somehow the fault of FCC’s staff that they have not “approved” any trials. AT&T has not actually applied to do trials. It is has said we ought to do trials (and I agree), but then failed to actually submit any kind of actual proposal the FCC could approve. So now it’s the FCC’s fault? Please.

 

 

Trials? Trials? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Trials!

 

So I’m somewhat sympathetic to the concerns of CLECs and others that AT&T basically wants to use the idea of trials to prove how awesome deregulation will be rather than gather actual information to inform policy. This does not make doing trials a bad idea. To revert back to the vaccine analogy, this would be like the American Medical Association saying: “We’ve been doing vaccines for centuries. This is just the latest in a long line of vaccines. Who needs trials? Lets just start shooting up some kids and see what happens — as long as you don’t sell the vaccines over-the-counter. Every vaccine needs a prescription, but no testing.”

 

As we learned on Fire Island, there is a huge difference between “wireless is a popular product in the market so lots of people don’t bother with a landline anymore” and “we can get rid of copper lines, who will miss them?” Every conversation about Voice Link always included the statistic that 80% of the traffic off the Island was already wireless — as if this had great relevance. “How dare you say that wireless isn’t good enough or reliable enough! Don’t you know 40% of people have totally cut the cord “blah blah blah “you just hate change” blah blah etc.

 

Except that when you actually took away the copper line, it turned out that 20% of traffic that flowed over copper landlines was really, really really REALLY important, especially to the people who relied on them. And services did not work out as planned. “What do you mean you can’t process credit card payments? I have this little doo-hickey on my iPhone that lets me take credit card payments.” Except that, as merchants on Fire Island found it, it didn’t work reliably enough — which is kind of a problem when this is your *only way* of taking credit card payments and you can’t switch back to traditional landline-based services because those traditional copper based services are no longer there

 

Verizon was not wrong or lying when they pointed out all the statistics about how popular their wireless network is and how it works really well for lots and lots of people. But that didn’t tell us enough to know what happens when an entire geographic area becomes wireless only. While I have lambasted Verizon for making the people of Fire Island “guinea pigs” and “involuntary beta testers,” it would be idiotic not to learn from the data we collected here in 3 months. And lesson one is: no, despite the fact that lots of IP-based and wireless technologies are out there in the market doing fine, we still don’t know what happens you shut off the traditional copper safety net.

 

What Tests/Data Collection Do We Need?

So I will step up here and two suggestions to get the ball rolling. This is by no means comprehensive and by no means the definitive word on experimental design. For starters, I’m a lawyer not an engineer. Furthermore, this is a friggin blog post not an FCC application. But talking about this in generalities doesn’t seem to be helping. So let me flesh this out at least a little bit.

 

 

Trial #1: Voice Quality and Reliability

One of the big issues that came up on Fire Island was concern about voice quality, dropped calls, can ability to consistently reach 9-1-1 in times of congestion.

 

Proposed experiment: Select a location typical of where the carrier wants to do wireline to wireless substitution. Solicit volunteers to test by giving free service for 6 months if they will agree to shut off (not remove!) their copper line and take wireless product in its place.

 

Now, to make this a controlled experiment, only shut off half the lines. Half the population of volunteers will actually still be using copper wirelines. Spend 6 months monitoring call quality, total number of dropped calls. Log all trouble calls. Monitor variance in performance based on weather conditions and other potentially relevant factors. Conduct thorough 9-1-1 tests during times of peak activity on both copper systems and wireless systems. In particular, in light of the recent disturbing report from CalNena that some carriers are not reliably transmitting location of 9-1-1 calls made with mobile phones, comparison of location accuracy needs to be done to ensure that location will be reliably transmitted.

 

Although voice quality is more usually a concern for wireless, it wouldn’t hurt to conduct similar trials for ip-based wireline, particularly focused on target communities like the elderly or businesses that need consistent, reliable high quality voice.

 

Trial #2: Device and Service Survey

For both I.P. and wireless, solicit a volunteer pool that includes small businesses as well as consumers. Survey the total number of devices and services that rely on access to the existing copper line in the pool and note the nature and type of traffic.

 

Over a 6 month trial period, which devices or services are incompatible with the change in technology? Which already have substitutes in the market, and which do not? If there are substitutes, how expensive and/or reliable are they? Do the participants experience any unanticipated expense? Difficulty in using replacement products/services? How many subscribers want to keep a separate long distance or international calling plan?

 

There is a lot of information out there on this already, but it is very haphazard and anecdotal in nature. Also, as Fire Island clearly demonstrated, people here in D.C. are vastly underweighting the level of reliance in the general population (and by small businesses in particular) on these existing embedded technologies and services. We have generalized statistics for broad market trends, we have no useful information that would allow anyone actually converting an entire geographic area to eliminate the availability of traditional copper service what is the likely impact within the community and how to handle that transition. We have no guide for consumers on how to find replacement products where available. No one has ever tracked the consumer or small business experience on this in any way we could call scientific.

 

Yes, we know it happens. that’s nice. We also know it doesn’t happen, and the consumers or businesses unhappy with a new technology sometimes switch back to the old copper line. But the old copper line is going to be gone, so the option of keeping it, or switching back if you don’t like your new wireless or VOIP alternative, will not be there. That, after all, is the whole point of a conversion.

 

Because at the end of the day, there is an enormous real difference between “the market” and “people.” One-third of the U.S. population, 100 million people, and some huge number of small businesses, still get service from a traditional copper TDM line. We need to understand how eliminating that option impacts them and what costs it will impose, not simply rely on the fact that the other 2/3 of people have found their own solution. Because, as Fire Island shows, if you say “well, 2/3 of the people figured it out so you guys should get along o.k.” this transition will crash and burn.

 

No “Behavioral” Experiments.

I will add that, as PK has said before in its official filings with the FCC on this, I don’t think “behavioral tests” tell us much. By that I mean “lets forget those pesky interconnection rules and see if we can cut some deals without any regulatory backstop” is not a useful experiment. Granted I had a real bad experience with this back over ten years ago when we went through this with cable open access (which I shall save for another time, but deserves retelling as it provides some interesting lessons for the current debate over IP interconnection). But even setting that aside, anyone can behave while the regulator is watching. You aren’t going to get any real data on how negotiations are going to go in the real world by setting up an artificial environment in which the reward for cutting some kind of one-off and highly-confidential deal is to be free of all regulation everywhere forevermore. We already *have* that experiment going. It’s called “the real world” in which the total number of successful voice interconnection agreements between CLECs and ILECs that any of us interested in can actually get access to so we can say something intelligent about them is: zero.

(If you want to tell me I’m wrong, send me your interconnection agreement. Don’t tell me ‘Internet peering happens all the time . . . blah blah . . . . incentives . . . blah blah blah. Again, shall have to save this for another time but, before I get back to this, please go read The Market For Lemons by George Akerlof. If you reaction is “Oh, but that was the used car market, what relevance does that have here” than please whap your head against something hard repeatedly. Make sure it’s an object you never previously whaped up against the side of your head. After all, the fact that you know that a branch hurts is clearly no indication whatsoever that whacking your head with a toaster would hurt. Because hey, tree branches and baseball bats are totally different.)

 

Why Does This Need To Happen Through The FCC?

 

A number of people ask why AT&T (or anybody else) can’t just run off and some trials on their own and then report back.  I have several reasons why I want this done through the FCC (AND the state Public Service Commissions, which everyone seems to forget).

 

1. These tests will require waiver of certain rules. Please note we are not talking generic waiver or a permanent waiver or anything like this. But certain state and federal obligations with regard to call quality, CPNI outage reporting, etc. are likely to need waiver for the duration of the trial.

Which is also why AT&T (or anyone else) cannot be trusted to simply be given a waiver and report this on their own. As with protocols to test the safety and efficacy of new drugs, there will need to procedures and constant supervision to ensure that the data is collected only for the relevant purpose and handled properly.

 

2. Immunization against liability. It is entirely possible in a live trial like this that something goes wrong that gives rise to a lawsuit. Conducting this under the supervision of the agency provides some protection (for you legal types, the key phrase here is “Filed Rate Doctrine.” The idea is to treat the experimental protocol as a tariff.)

Again, this clearly means there is some upfront risk. And the flip side of that coin is that it needs active FCC and State PSC supervision. Limited immunity as a way to move forward cannot become a blank check to go crazy and act carelessly or irresponsibly.

 

3. Access to data for everyone. The whole point of this is to provide data to inform policy. If a company runs off and does this by itself, we will only get whatever information the company wants to share. As the most informative results are likely to be the most embarrassing for those who think we can just plug this in and run with it, I want to make sure that all data gets properly reported and is accessible to everyone in the policy debate. Yes, we can figure some way to handle confidential info. But I know I will feel much better integrity of the data and access to the data if the FCC and state PSCs are actively involved.

 

4. Someone has to decide when to pull the plug. It may very well be the case that we have sufficient problems that we don’t want to subject the test population to the experiment going forward. Someone who does not have a vested interest in the outcome of the pilot needs to make that decision. Say what you like about the FCC being overcautious and “not moving on Internet time” they are exquisitely sensitive to the fact that if 9-1-1 calls don’t go through, people die.

 

 

We Do Not Need To Wait On AT&T.

 

I want to stress again that these are just preliminary thoughts about types of information gathering exercises and that any of these suggestions needs serious consideration and work by actually qualified engineers and other experts. But I also want to point out we do not need to wait for AT&T or the CLECs to get over themselves and start taking this seriously. Anyone with an interest in this process and the relevant expertise can, and should, submit their own recommendations (the more detailed the better!) for actual trials and information gathering exercises, with real timelines, metrics, safety features, etc.

 

Because here is the most important thing about the honkin’ big process we loosely label “the IP Transition” or “the phone transition.” This doesn’t belong to AT&T. I am really very glad AT&T got the ball rolling on this with their application and that they are remaining engaged with the regulatory process and with stakeholders. But everyone is going to go through this. That includes all the other existing ILECs, and everyone who interacts with the phone system — which means all of us.

 

I would like to see AT&T step up on this and submit some real proposals. I would also like to see the CLECs and others stop thinking that all the questions are answered and this is just a policy fight. At the end of the day this has to work! Or the sh–storm that was Fire Island is going to be repeated over and over again until this transition crashes for good.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

 

 

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