FCC eyes new rules to protect consumers as voice networks transition to IP

An agency proposal would require incumbent carriers to share last-mile networks with competitors

The Federal Communications Commission will consider new rules to ensure real consumer choice as the U.S. shifts from copper-based networks to IP networks, agency officials said Friday.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will offer a set of proposals aimed at protecting voice customers during the commission's Nov. 21 meeting, senior agency officials said. In addition to network-sharing rules, the FCC will consider requiring power backup systems on VoIP networks, officials said.

In its consumer-protection proposals, which the FCC would release for public comment, the agency will consider rules for large telephone carriers that are currently required to share their last-mile networks with competitors, often to serve small-business customers. Wheeler's proposal would require the large carriers to also share their last-mile IP networks, under similar terms and prices to their copper infrastructure, FCC officials said.

In the transition to IP networks, the FCC believes voice customers shouldn't end up with fewer competitive options, an FCC official said during a press briefing. That proposal could be controversial, as large carriers have traditionally not shared their IP networks with competitors.

The transition to IP-based networks is at a "tipping point," Wheeler wrote in a blog post Friday.

To protect competition, his proposal would "ensure that small- and medium-sized businesses do not have the benefits of competition yanked away from them," Wheeler wrote. "The mere change of a network facility or discontinuance of a legacy service should not deprive consumers or businesses of competitive choices. That would only lead to higher telecommunications prices that are passed along to consumers."

In the FCC's notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, the agency will also ask whether it should require battery backups that will enable VoIP customers to dial 911 during emergencies and make other calls during power outages.

The traditional copper-based telephone network supplies power to connected telephones, but phones connected to fiber-based networks need their own power source. During natural disasters and other emergencies, it's important for VoIP customers to be able to make phone calls, FCC officials said.

The FCC is worried not only about customers being able to dial out during power outages, but also about 911 emergency dialing service interruptions at call-routing centers that increasingly handle emergency traffic from wide geographic regions, the FCC officials said. The agency has tracked an "unprecedented" number of large-scale 911 service outages this year, not due to storms or disasters, but to software and other technology errors.

In April, a software coding error at a large 911 routing center knocked out service to more than 11 million residents of seven states, including California, Minnesota and Florida, for up to six hours. More than 6,600 emergency 911 calls did not go through during the outage, the FCC said.

A transition to IP-based networks will allow 911 call centers to receive texts, videos and data from vehicle crash sensors, Wheeler wrote in his blog post. "But the introduction of new technologies has also introduced new vulnerabilities that cannot be ignored," he added. "We have seen a spike in so-called 'sunny day' outages, when failure comes from the failure of software or databases and not from natural disasters."

In the IP transition proposal, the FCC would require public notification of major changes to 911 service and would expand its 911 service certification requirements.

Wheeler's proposal would also require telephone carriers to notify customers when transitioning to IP networks and consider the impact on legacy telephone-based services before making the switch, the FCC said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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