Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
American phone companies began laying the nation’s vast copper wire telecom network in the 1800s. But today less than one-third of the country uses the old copper lines, and a mere 5 percent rely on them exclusively. The advent of fiber optic cable and wireless phone service makes the copper network obsolete. We explore the fate of landline phone service and concerns about pricing, safety and access as the nation transitions to an all-digital phone future.
- Rick Boucher Former Congressman (D-Va.) and member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Telecommunications Subcommittee; Partner, Sidley Austin law firm; Honorary Chairman, Internet Innovation Alliance
- Brian Fung Technology Reporter, The Washington Post
- Jodie Griffin Senior Staff Attorney, Public Knowledge
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on Tech Tuesday.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMaybe you've already switched your landline phone service, abandoning the historic copper wire network for fiber optic cable. Or maybe you've gone completely mobile and given up landline phone service altogether. If so, you're not alone. Today, fewer than one third of telephone customers place their calls through the old copper wire network and only five percent still use it as their only option.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs a result, the phone companies want permission to stop maintaining the copper lines and switch everyone to digital service. But consumer watchdogs and the FCC say, not so fast. They agree digital is the way to the future, but want to be sure the pricing and reliability don't shut anyone out of the market for phone service. With the nation's original phone line network now largely obsolete, "Tech Tuesday" explores the transition to an all-digital telephone world, and what it may mean for consumers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Jodie Griffin. She is Senior Staff Attorney with Public Knowledge. Jodie Griffin, thank you for joining us.
MS. JODIE GRIFFINThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Brian Fung. He is a Technology Reporter with the Washington Post. Brian, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRIAN FUNGThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by telephone is Rick Boucher. He is a former member of Congress from Virginia, a Democrat who served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And the Telecommunications Sub-Committee. He's now a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin. Rick Boucher, thank you for joining us.
MR. RICK BOUCHERKojo, I'm pleased to be with you today. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow using the hashtag techtuesday. Go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you still have your landline phone? How often do you use it? 800-433-8850. Congressman Boucher, I'll start with you. You spent 25 years in Congress working on telecommunications policy. Remind us what the options are today for telephone service, from the landline phones that rely on the classic copper wire network to the newer fiber optic cable to wireless service.
BOUCHERWell, there are a broad number of options for consumers to meet their communications needs. And as you indicated in the introduction, only five percent of communications users now use the old telephone network exclusively. Another 28 percent use it in combination with wireless. But two thirds of consumers have moved on to other platforms. And those would include the cable services that, today, are comprehensive in the range of services offered. Over cable modem service, you can get voice just as you would from the old telephone network.
BOUCHERYou get multi-channel video. To most consumers, that would be known as the basic cable package of programs. 100 channels or more. You also get high speed internet access, and all of that is delivered by cable companies that are today largely unregulated. The other major platform is the mobile platform and with the latest generation of broadband service across mobile, LTE, the so-called fourth generation of wireless, data rates of up to 20 megabits per second are possible.
BOUCHERAnd so that platform is now a full competitor and a very able competitor in the offering of voice, video and data. And then, in some localities around the country, you have other options. For example, Google Fiber has overbuilt the existing providers with fiber optics in Kansas City, Missouri, and I think a couple of other locations. Perhaps Austin, Texas. And, in return, you're now seeing some of the incumbent providers moving to that very high speed gigabit network and competing head on head with Google Fiber.
BOUCHERIn addition to that, satellite services offer multi-channel video. They also can offer, through some of their partners, broadband access. They don't offer voice service unless the person is using the broadband link in order to access Skype or one of the other voice over internet protocol applications. So, there are a multiplicity of choices available today, and consumers are voting to leave the old telephone network, which is wearing out, becoming antiquated. Largely, a single purpose network devoted to phone service.
BOUCHERAnd today, they're moving to these other platforms that offer, with crystal clear quality, a far wider array of services. The numbers of users -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.
NNAMDIMy brain just wore out just listening to the choices. Allow me to start it up again. The big phone companies like Verizon and AT&T say they're being forced to spend a lot of money maintaining an outdated copper wire network that fewer and fewer people are using. Rick Boucher, what's the cost and what do existing government rules require?
BOUCHERWell, even though two thirds of users have departed the old telephone network, current rules still treat that as the nation's core communications medium used by virtually everyone. The telephone companies are required to maintain the entire network, even though only one third of users are using it at all, and those numbers are declining rapidly by the way. Year after year. And there are some very interesting numbers, in terms of cost. A recent study shows that between 2006 and 2011, telephone companies spent a total of 154 billion dollars on capital expenditures.
BOUCHERThe maintenance of existing equipment, the purchase of new equipment, and most of that expenditure went to maintaining the old network. So, even as telephone companies are trying to build modern networks to compete with cable and satellite and other providers, they're having to maintain this legacy network. And the cost of doing that, as the numbers of users decline, rapidly become unsustainable. And so the time for a transition, carefully planned, and over a period of time, to more modern networks, with an eventual sunset of the circuit switch telephone network, is now clearly in order.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, that's the voice of former Congressman Rick Boucher. He's a Democrat who served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Telecommunications Sub-Committee. He's now a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin. Joining us in studio is Brian Fung. He's a Technology Reporter with the Washington Post.
NNAMDIAnd Jodie Griffin is Senior Staff Attorney with Public Knowledge. Jodie Griffin, as consumers gravitate to new fiber optic and wireless technology, the country is transitioning away from the historic copper wire network. And moving to close it down entirely. Can you explain the process that is now underway and the role of the Federal Communications Commission in it?
GRIFFINThank you. I think what the transition means looks a little different, depending on where you are and what services you're using. There's the process of moving to internet protocols. There's the process of moving from copper to fiber or copper to wireless. And each of those new technologies presents new opportunities that we embrace. But also challenges and points where we need to make sure that consumers are still protected, regardless of whatever technology they're using for basic voice service.
GRIFFINThe FCC has taken a leading role in this, and we're glad to see that, to make sure that consumers are protected throughout the process and after the process. And one of the most recent actions that they've taken was in January of this past year. The FCC put out a unanimous bipartisan order saying that there are certain fundamental values that underlie the phone network. They pointed to public safety and national security, consumer protection, competition and universal access.
GRIFFINAnd in that order, they said the first step here is to set up some trials to test the new technologies and make sure that nobody's going to be left behind when they're switching to a new technology.
NNAMDIBrian Fung, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said at a conference last week that he'll introduce measures to make sure the copper system is phased out responsibly. What's his plan and what's the significance of those remarks?
FUNGWell, the details are still being worked out, but the basic idea is that the FCC wants to make sure that any transition to fiber based or IP based telephone systems will not leave anyone behind, as Jodie was just saying. And how you get there, potentially, is, you know, exploring measures to ensure that copper, you know, the old copper phone system isn't just simply abandoned wholesale. It's that you continue to spend money maintaining to some amount, you know, to some degree.
FUNGOr, you know, in places where the copper is being retired, perhaps you sell it off to, you know, smaller rural competitors who could still find a use for it. And the interesting thing about copper is that there are now a lot of developments happening in that space that are bringing -- making copper more useful again, you know, in terms of broadband, in terms of access. One great example, Alcatel-Lucent has recently developed a breakthrough where they've enhanced DSL speeds. You know, DSL's a very venerable internet technology. Most people are on cable today, but, you know, DSL is still used by many people in the United States, including my parents, in fact.
FUNGAnd so, what Alcatel-Lucent did was to figure out how to achieve much faster broadband speeds on copper as -- and, you know, that would potentially prolong the life of copper as a technology in the United States.
NNAMDIAn FCC committee recommended that the transition be complete by the year 2018. Now, people are talking about the end of this decade as a target. Why the uncertainty?
FUNGWell, this is obviously a very complicated process. And one of the things that these trials are designed to show is just what happens when we move to an IP based system. You know, are people going to be affected in terms of their access to 911 services? Are there some folks who are just going to be left without phone service entirely? And so, as part of the transition, I think there's a lot of uncertainty about, you know, what the consequences actually will be as we move forward, which is sort of leading to this fuzzy deadline.
NNAMDIAnd copper is such a valuable metal. Rick Boucher, would the lines just be left to decay?
BOUCHERI think that the two previous speakers have raised very valid points and I find myself in agreement with everything that they have said. And I'll answer that question, but let me just add a couple of footnotes. The hat that I'm actually wearing today is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance. We're a non-profit membership organization, about 175 members. And we're devoted to broadband adoption and broadband deployment. Those are our guiding principles. And we very much agree with the process the FCC has put in place.
BOUCHERThe demonstration projects in urban and rural areas are very sensible ways to determine what might go wrong when you have a more rapid national transition. And then to have remedies in place prior to that time. You were commenting on the time frame. When Tom Wheeler was Chairman of the FCC's Technical Advisory Council, he recommended a sunset of the POT's network, the old circuit switch network, by 2018.
BOUCHERBut I think now, with Tom being in the leadership position at the FCC, he's realizing that we really need to plan this transition carefully. Public Knowledge put out a series of principles that should be followed. We at the Internet Innovation Alliance agree with those principles. Service for all, competition, reliability, consumer protection, public safety. And I think, now, we can add to that list the subject of your question, which is, what is done with the old copper network when the transition happens?
BOUCHERAnd users are moved almost entirely over to broadband? And I think that's a question that has to be considered, that there are a number of options. It has some value. It will have different value, depending on the applications with which it's put.
BOUCHERA common way in which values are determined where there's no other external exact measure is to have an auction. And possibly the FCC might consider authorizing an auction for the copper network at such point in time as the transition to digital networks is complete. I don't think there's an obvious answer to that challenge at this point, but it's a subject that will have to be debated and resolved prior to the end of this decade when we hope a sunset of the public switched network will occur.
NNAMDIJodie Griffin and Brian Fung, an op-ed writer in Forbes said, "I once did the sums on British telecom and it would appear then the copper in its cables is actually worth more than the entire company." So we're talking about a valuable substance here.
GRIFFINYes. Certainly copper is a valuable metal. So is the service that customers are getting on the copper network. We're talking about a service that not only allows people to contact their loved ones and contact customers or businesses, but also access to 911 service, access to hotlines for government programs that provide the social safety net that help millions of Americans across the country. So I think we really need to be really thoughtful about making sure that…
NNAMDIBefore the FCC approves the transition, you'd like to see a checklist for the phone companies to demonstrate that the new service options are as reliable as the old. I was going to ask about what are some of your biggest concerns. But I think Donna in Annapolis, Md., will take us there. Donna, you are on the air, go ahead, please.
DONNAHi. I have asthma and a landline. And I can call 911 and my name pops up, they know who I am and where I am. That is not true on my cellphone. That's all.
NNAMDIBack to you, Jodie Griffin.
GRIFFINYes. That's very true. So there are currently -- when you call 911 from a cellphone, if you're calling from indoors there are not rules about how the carrier has to get your location to the public safety answering point, the 911 center. That's a huge concern for us. We actually have a petition going right now on our website, PublicKnowledge.org. And we are supporting the FCC's efforts right now to implement rules to make sure that people still have the same basic public safety guarantees regardless of what type of phone they're using to call 911.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation on the future of phone service, but you can still call us at 800-433-8850 with your comments or questions. If the lines are busy, you can send us an email to email@example.com. Have you switched your home phone service to fiber optic cable? Why did you make the move? How reliable is your fiber optic cable phone service, especially when the power goes out? 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on the future of phone service. We're talking with Brian Fung. He's a technology reporter with the Washington Post. Rick Boucher is a former congressman from Virginia. He joins us in his capacity as co-chairman of the Internet Information (sic) Alliance. And Jody Griffin is senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge. You can call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIJodie, there's some concern that fiber optic cable and wireless can be more expensive than traditional landline phone service, which may be a problem for low-income customers. What are the options?
GRIFFINYes. Well, one of the issues here is that we have a guarantee, basically, that you'll have an option to have a basic phone service through usually the copper network. And when you move to wireless or fiber you may not have that same option available, depending on the protocol that the company is using when they're offering the service. That's a huge issue for people who are low income, as you say.
GRIFFINAnd it's particularly an issue for households that may have to choose between, you know, they really need a cellphone maybe for work, but they don't have the ability to pay for that and for an additional phone. And that's why we're so concerned about making sure we have the same protections available for all of the technologies.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Tony, in Arlington, who writes, "I hope the discussion will include the fact that the copper network has greater reliability because of less dependency on household electricity availability. In other words, the old copper system worked throughout many power outages dues to storms, etcetera. The new fiber optics system is reliant on an on-site battery that is rated eight hours only and probably would last less than that."
NNAMDI"Thus, without power the phone system goes down when residential electricity is out for more than eight hours. This is why we," according to Tony, "insist on staying on the old copper system." Rick Boucher, talk about reliability. The copper wire network may work best in a power outage, but underground fiber optic cable and wireless transmission can be more reliable in a storm where tree branches knock down phone and power lines, correct?
BOUCHERYes. And I think that's a key point. The experience with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans taught us that high wind and water can either flood out or bring down landlines that are hanging off of telephone poles. In fact, the landline communication system was non-functional, by and large, in the wake of that event. But the mobile networks remained functional. And it was actually through broadband communications and wireless technology that people were able to maintain contact in the immediate hours and even days after that hurricane and flood.
BOUCHERSo, you know, the question of reliability is relative. There are aspects of the copper network that are more reliable, aspects of broadband networks that can be more reliable. And I think the challenge for the FCC is to carefully consider, as a part of the demonstration project -- and at the time between now and the national transition -- what steps we can take to make sure that we have adequate power availability when failures occur.
BOUCHERWe also need -- I might point out -- creative solutions for some technologies that don't work very well over broadband networks at the present time. What I have in mind are credit card readers, heart monitors, security systems that are compatible today over copper wires, but may not be compatible over broadband. We simply have to find ways with new technology, new creative approaches to make sure that those information systems remain functional.
BOUCHERWhile I'm speaking, let me just add a thought to the question you previously posed about affordability of broadband solutions. You know, today we have a program for the copper wire phone service network called Lifeline. And people who can demonstrate financial need can get a subsidy. It's provided through the carriers. And the money originates with the FCC's Universal Service Fund. And for a very low amount per month people can get basic voice service. The time has come to transition that program so that it applies not just to voice service, but also to broadband communications.
BOUCHERAnd I think there's a broad understanding that that transition needs to happen. In fact, at the Internet Innovation Alliance we'll be releasing a white paper within the next month that talks about a novel way to accomplish that transition that's very strongly in the consumer interest and recognizes that today consumers are really leading, consumers are in charge. And this would empower consumers to make the kinds of choices with Lifeline funds that they think are most appropriate for them.
NNAMDIRich Boucher is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance. We're going to get this right. Jodie, explain why the copper wire network still works when the power goes out, but the fiber optic system doesn't seem to.
GRIFFINWell, the copper wire can carry an electrical current. So that means that the power comes from the central office, traditionally. So what happens is that there are rules around the carrier's backup power for the central office. So they will have generators or very big battery backups there that can last for a very long time. When we're moving the backup power to the customer's premises for their home, the issue there is that a lot of times you'll see battery backup that lasts -- like the comment you read -- about eight hours, but that's standby time.
GRIFFINSo if you're talking it lasts for about two hours. As I'm sure a lot of people have experienced, a power outage can last much longer than that. And those are exactly the times when you want to know that 911 can get to you.
NNAMDIAnd that is exactly what our producer Kathy Goldgeier said, that she has experience the two-hour limit when you happen to be talking. But a technical question from Paul, in Arlington, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi. I'm not disputing that there are legitimate issues at stake here, but I feel as if the discussion is very confused and incomplete. And it's combining a lot of things as if they were one, that are actually separate. And I can't discuss them all, but the one thing that concerns me is the talk about the copper network, as if, for example, if I were to place a call from Arlington, Va., to San Francisco, my voice would be carried on copper for 3,000 miles.
PAULBut it's my understanding that the -- well, virtually everything, the long-distance network and even a lot of the shorter distances were converted to fiber optic cable starting more than 30 years ago. Could some of your guests clarify that?
NNAMDICan you talk about that Brian Fung?
FUNGAbsolutely. What we really haven't talked about yet is that there is a really robust industry, I would say, about, you know, connecting phone calls to -- from between different parties, across long, long distances. And, you know, this is not just about serving individual consumers, but there are changes here that affect, you know, entire businesses that the consumer often never sees.
FUNGAnd so one of the things that the FCC has said is that, you know, we want to make sure that this entire telephone industry is also, you know, somewhat protected from the changes that could potentially cause harms as this transition moves forward. One of things being insuring that calls are routed and exchanged at reasonable, competitive rates. And so the FCC has proposed, you know, the FCC's chairman has said, you know, he'll introduce measures -- it's unclear what they are going to be -- to make sure that interconnection between companies is going to be fair and just.
NNAMDIBut getting back to Paul's point about the fact that over long distances what we are talking about are not exclusively copper wires, we're also talking about fiber optic?
FUNGYeah, absolutely. And so the question that I think the caller is asking about is, you know, as we -- the transition moves forward, the, you know, these companies that are involved in bringing phone calls from one part of the country to another over these long distance networks or these back-haul networks, what are the rules that are governing these relationships between companies? And are they sufficient to maintain competition and preserve low prices for the consumer?
NNAMDIRick Boucher, you wanted to say?
BOUCHERYeah, Kojo, here's my thought. The caller is exactly right. Over the long distances the technology today that carries telephone traffic is typically fiber optic based. That's the most efficient way to deliver the traffic. And there are a large number of a carriers that offer that service. And telephone companies can basically select the carries they want to do business with over those longer distances. Phone companies have deployed their own fiber optic networks over the longer distances.
BOUCHERWhat we're really talking about in terms of the transition from the old copper network to more modern networks is over what we call the last mile. And that's the distance from the telephone company's central office to the premises of the users. And that collectively is the greatest bulk of the network. All of those individual wires extending out to homes and businesses from the central office, cumulatively, are more miles than the long distance network contains.
BOUCHERAnd the cost of maintaining that old network are extraordinarily high and climbing. So when we talk about the transition, we're really talking about that last mile, where copper wire continues to be the primary platform that delivers just plain old voice service.
NNAMDIHere is Jessie, in Leesburg, Va. Jessie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JESSIEYes. So I live in Leesburg, which is only an outside of D.C., our nation's capital. And yet I still can't get what most people would consider to be standard broadband, such as internet, cable internet or FIOS. I knew that one of the reasons that copper is everywhere is that it's highly regulated and legally they're required to provide copper to every resident. But yet the broadband companies seem to be strongly fighting the regulation.
JESSIEAnd I use as an example that I believe that their -- they don't want to be classed as a common carrier and really don't want net neutrality, which worries me as more people are moving to voice telephony services. So if we're swapping out the copper over to broadband, shouldn't we also swap over the regulations, too?
NNAMDIFor a long time, Jodie Griffin, as our caller points out, telephone regulation has been based on the goal of universal connectivity, the idea that every household or business that wants a phone connection has access to one. Is that what we're looking for even as we try to change the platform on which we're communicating by telephone?
GRIFFINI think it is. I think that as we're moving forward the idea of what services constitute the basic service and what are the necessary services people need will change as time goes on. And now we're looking more at broadband, in addition to basic voice service. But now I think that just means for both of those we're very concerned about making sure that everybody has access to those because that's what you need to move ahead in your education, to move ahead in your jobs, to reach out to your loved ones.
GRIFFINSo, again, in this sense we're a little bit technology agnostic in the sense that it doesn't matter to us which protocols you're using or which technology you're using, but if it's the basic network that you need access to we want to make sure that you have access to that. So we think the FCC should have authority over both types of technologies to makes sure that people have access.
NNAMDIHow do you feel about that, Rick Boucher?
BOUCHERLet me add a violent agreement with what Jodie just said. I think it's very important that we acknowledge some fundamentals. Post-transition will not be a regulation-free zone. There will continue to be regulation and oversight to assure the core consumer values that we discussed earlier in the program. These are values that Public Knowledge announced, and from the broadband community perspective, these core values are acknowledged and supported.
BOUCHERUniversal service, meaning that everyone gets a connection. And in the end, people must have at least as good service as they have today. For the vast majority of users it will be better because the broadband platform can offer more services than the single purpose telephone network. And then the other values, just to mention them, of competition, reliability, consumer protection so that the service provider promises a quality service will have to be honored.
BOUCHERAnd consumers have a place to take complaints, if they have them, with some prospect that the complaint is going to be acted on properly. And, of course, public safety. And then access for people with disabilities so that the vision and hearing impaired will have the same telecommunication services available to them post-transition that they have today. There's really no debate about these core values. And to assure them, some measure of regulation is going to be necessary after the transition has been completed.
NNAMDIBrian Fung, of course some people would argue that in the age of texting and emailing and internet communication, phone calls are not as important as they once were. Are they?
FUNGWell, I think a lot of people who, you know, are particularly not, you know, in the younger sort of millennial generation would probably disagree. Phone calls are very important. And -- but, you know, what you point out, Kojo, is sort of this great technological convergence where, you know, the way that we treat phone calls is very different from the way that we treat phone calls of, you know, even 50 years ago. You know, voice, video, data, I mean it's all being carried over what are essentially internet pipes now.
FUNGAnd, you know, so the big challenge, I think, for regulators is, how do we deal with this convergence and what are the, you know, should there be different rules for different services or should we all treat, you know, everything the same way?
NNAMDIOn now to Marco in Greenbelt, Md. Marco, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARCOYeah, okay. I just wanted to talk about an experience that I had. I actually went to fiber and then went back to copper. My experience was, I -- they, you know, they're bugging me to get on the fiber because they want to get out of the regulation. I know that, you know, all of that. So I finally said, okay, you can do it, if you leave my copper alone. Because I want the phone to work when the power goes out. I know that's already been discussed. And that battery is not even eight hours of standby, once you've had it for a few years. And then when you -- then, if you don't replace it after three or four years, it won't work at all when the power goes out. And that's the consumer's responsibility, they tell you.
MARCOBut anyway, they put the -- the put the copper -- the fiber in, and when I get home, of course, they switch my phone service, too, even though I told them not to. And worse, they cut the copper. And then when I called and said that I wanted it back, they said, oh, it's not available in your area. And it took months and months. And finally I essentially -- I'm visually impaired -- I essentially said -- and I am an engineer -- I essentially said, I'm going to take a video of myself digging up my copper line and finding out where it's broken. And I'm going to put it on the Internet if you guys don't get somebody out here to fix it. And they did.
MARCOThey got somebody out there to fix it. But that was after calling the Public Service Commission, calling all over the place and saying, I want -- and so I finally said, get rid of the FiOS completely. I don't want it anymore. Get my DSL back. And I will be the last customer they disconnect.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call and for your testimony, if you will, Marco. Jodie Griffin, in researching for this broadcast, we've been hearing complaints from consumers who say that when they have a problem with their landlines, that they call the telephone company and the telephone company says it'll take a while to fix those. But you can get fiber optic much faster. And they feel that in a way they are being conned into getting fiber optic. Have you been hearing the same thing?
GRIFFINYes. We have been hearing this kind of complaint and we have been hearing it from across the country, which is a huge worry for us and it's completely unacceptable. Because people need to have access to the basic service. That is what our national policies are based on. We have seen people say, the company isn't repairing my copper line or they're taking a long time to get it. We've seen people say, I was told that it wasn't available anymore and that I had to purchase the more expensive option.
GRIFFINAnd we have -- one action we took in response to this was, we compiled the complaints that we've seen from several states and we put them before the Federal Communications Commission and we asked the FCC to investigate this. Both because each individual complaint is important in itself, because these are people who are being left behind essentially and also because, as we're looking at the policy and we're saying, oh, people are leaving the copper network in droves, nobody cares about it anymore. It is -- it calls into question that premise, when we're then hearing that people are leaving the copper because they thought they didn't have a choice or they thought that there was not an adequately maintained copper option available to them.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. We'll return to our Tech Tuesday conversation on the future of phone service when we come back. You can still join the conversation. Send us an email to email@example.com. Do you think voice telephone service is still essential, now that we can text and email and communicate through the Internet? Would it bother you if all phone service went digital and the copper-wire landlines disappeared. Also, you can send us a text @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation on the future of phone service, with Jodie Griffin, senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge. Brian Fung is a technology reporter with The Washington Post. And Rick Boucher is a former congressman from Virginia, a Democrat who served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Today, he joins us in his capacity as co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance. Rick Boucher, you have said it's in the national interest for this transition to take place now. How will consumers benefit, if phone companies can switch their investment from the old technology to the new?
BOUCHERThere are any number of ways that consumers benefit. But some work has to be done to make sure that the full benefit is delivered in a timely way. We've discussed on this program the need for reliable backup power. Some innovative approaches to doing that should be devised and be better, frankly, than what we have today. Another really valuable component of the consumer benefit is the benefit that consumers get when telephone companies are free to direct their investment into the modern broadband networks that consumers vastly prefer and are now in ever-increasing numbers with a reciprocating decline in the use of the old telephone network.
BOUCHERThe cable industry today is largely unregulated. It's free to direct its investments where it sees the greatest business opportunity. And cable across the country is building highly-capable broadband networks and offering a multiplicity of services to consumers -- the combination of voice, video and data. Telephone companies, the most logical competitor on the wired side, are constrained by the requirement that they continue to maintain the old copper network as if it were the nation's core communications medium used by virtually everyone. And telephone companies today have been investing more funds in their capital expenditures in maintaining the old network than they are in building out the new networks.
BOUCHERSo having a transition to modern broadband networks for the country as a whole, freeing telephone companies to direct their investment into the fiber-optic and other kinds of broadband networks that will make them more vibrant competitors with cable, benefits consumers. Consumers always win when there's fierce and fair competition and when people are competing head-to-head in offering services. They have more individualized services available to meet their communications needs and they get that service at competitive pricing. That's a fundamental way in which consumers benefit.
NNAMDIBrian Fung, let's look at a few test cases that have taken place to see what the end of the copper network might look like. What happened on Fire Island in New York after Hurricane Sandy, when the copper network went down and Verizon tried to put everyone on wireless service?
FUNGSo Fire Island is -- it's become kind of a famous example of what could happen in a future where, you know, that's unconstrained by rules. What happened in Fire Island was that the hurricane had taken out essentially large swaths of the existing copper infrastructure. And so Verizon was in a position where it could either spend a lot of money trying to rebuild the network or to adapt to the situation and bring in a different technology that it had been working on. And what it chose was the latter. It brought in a technology called Voice Link. And what Voice Link did was essentially convert your landline phone into a cellphone.
FUNGAnd so instead of installing lots of expensive copper again, Verizon connected your landline phone to its wireless network. Within a few weeks, a lot of people found that the service was unreliable or spotty or the voice quality wasn't as great as it was before when they had the copper system. And it took a lot of pressure, you know, both from consumers as well as from certain lawmakers as well to get Verizon to reverse course. And now Verizon has committed to building out fiber to the area.
FUNGSo, you know, the question is, whether, you know, a lack of intervention would have led Verizon simply to impose, you know, Voice Link on consumers and leave it at that? You know, would regulation be enough to address that kind of a problem moving forward?
NNAMDIWhat does that story say to you, Jodie Griffin?
GRIFFINI think one of the big lessons that I learned from the Fire Island example is, first of all, that consumers really care. And I think we've seen that just from the comments we've gotten from the public during this show. But when the New York Public Service Commission opened a docket to seek public comment on the move to Voice Link, hundreds of people in a very small community -- hundreds of people complained. And it really showed that this is not just an obsolete technology that nobody cares about. People were really up in arms and they really wanted a reliable service that supported all of the features they were relying on, like heart monitors, security alarms, Internet access, things like that.
GRIFFINAnd the second big lesson I take is that the Federal Communications Commission stepped in and the New York Public Service Commission stepped in and it was really crucial to have authorities on the state and federal level who were stepping in to protect consumers.
BOUCHERYeah. The message I take from this is that the environment just wasn't ready for this kind of dramatic flash cut. You know, this was moving literally overnight from the telephone circuit-switch network to wireless networks. And the broadband system, the wireless system, just was not robust enough to handle that. And that points to the value of careful planning and the value of the demonstration projects that the FCC now has underway, where robustness can be built into the system well in advance of the national transition taking place. So it's important to understand that when we talk about a national circuit switch to IP transition, we're not talking about a flash cut. We're not talking about something happening overnight.
BOUCHERThere will be careful planning. There will be strong and capable systems in place in order to handle, on the broadband side, the traffic today that's carried on the circuit switch side.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up because, Brian Fung, the FCC has authorized AT&T to run two trials in Florida and Alabama to test a transition to all digital service. How are those trials going and what will they tell us?
FUNGWell, the trials are still sort of in the planning stages at this point. The, you know, what AT&T was doing was essentially trying to drum up public support for these trials to go through and, you know, talking to folks who live in the area to try and get them to sign up for this program. So, you know, we're still not really sure what is going to happen when those trials move forward. What I will say, you know, and going back to what the congressman was just saying, you know, wireless service isn't and doesn't necessarily have to be a poor, you know, a poor option compared to landline service, you know, as we've seen with millions of people moving from traditional landline service to wireless service.
FUNGWe've also seen wireless data service becoming much more competitive in recent years. And in some case, you know, people will often choose their 3G or their LTE connection over, you know, the Wi-Fi that's in their home. Now they're, you know, the FCC has said that those two are not, you know, that wireless and wire-line service are not exactly, you know, competitors yet. So there are, you know, it's important to lay a caveat down there.
FUNGBut, you know, they're -- what's really exciting about this space is that wireless companies are increasingly competing with traditional phone companies, with the cable industry. And so you're seeing a lot more engagement, a lot more energy and a lot more innovation happening as a result of these large industries coming together.
NNAMDIAnd now that you're going down that road, not everyone agrees that the copper wire network is obsolete. Explain how new DSL technology could give copper, if you will, new life.
FUNGThat's right. So one of the things that Bell Labs has done -- Bell Labs was famously sort of the GoogleX of AT&T back in the day, but now has been spun off and is owned by Alcatel-Lucent. What they did was develop advancements on copper-wire technology that allows broadband speeds up to a gigabit per second. By comparison, the average Internet connection in the United States is about 10 megabits per second. That's about 100 times slower, I believe, than a gigabit per second connection. So, you know, the possibilities here for copper are tremendous. The only disadvantage to this advance in technology is that it only works over short distances.
FUNGSo what you could see in the future is a mixture of, you know, fiber to a local neighborhood, and then connecting the fiber -- or, I'm sorry, connecting the home to that node using the existing copper lines just with this additional upgrade applied. And so that way you don't have to spend extra money laying down fiber directly to the home. The consumer gets the added benefit of faster Internet without necessarily a lot of hullabaloo associated with it.
NNAMDIOn the question of cost, here's Daniel in Arlington, Va. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELHi, Kojo. Hi, guys. How are you all this afternoon?
NNAMDIWe're doing well.
DANIELGreat. Well I -- my original comment was going to be something to the effect of what these companies, rather than what the FCC can do, to subsidize the transition in the way of cheaper equipment, cheaper costs for, you know, not like a six-month period, but like a year or two-year period as the transition occurs, especially for lower-income families. So honestly, after listening to all of this, I'm kind of wondering if the phone industry just needs to be nationalized. And also, what sort of regulatory -- does there need to be a full transition of all regulatory policies that are currently being applied to copper systems put over to these -- the fiber-optic systems?
DANIELEspecially given that ultimately, between the money recovered from selling -- from activating and selling the copper and then future profits from having a less expensive maintenance bill for these companies -- won't that ultimately kind of be a benefit to them in the long run, even with those added costs of having a subsidized transition?
NNAMDIRick Boucher, you can talk about that and talk about the theory that consumers are also best served when there's competition on the market.
BOUCHERYeah. Well, I'm going to come back to public knowledge as principles for consumer protection. And simply stated, it's universal connectivity -- everyone getting a service at least as good as what they have today at the end of the transition. Competition, reliability, consumer protection, public safety access, hearing- and vision-impaired access -- all of these are really important values. And I think there's broad agreement that they need to be preserved. And the regulation that should attend the future network does not have to be all of the regulation that attends the current network.
BOUCHERBecause much of that does inhibit the investment that it benefits consumers to have, when telephone companies become more vibrant competitors with cable by being able to direct their dollars into these broadband systems. The regulation that is needed in the future is the regulation needed to protect these four consumer values. And I think the sweet spot for the FCC is determining what that measure of regulation is and, at the same time, by freeing telephone companies of regulation...
NNAMDIYou only have about 30 seconds left.
BOUCHER...yeah, that have attended the old network, allowing them to redirect a large part of their investment into the new networks. That's critically important.
NNAMDIRick Boucher is a former member of Congress from Virginia. He's a Democrat who served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He's now co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance. Brian Fung is a technology reporter with The Washington Post. And Jodie Griffin is senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," campaign contributions and contracting deals. WAMU 88.5's Patrick Madden explores whether the D.C. Council has a pay-to-play culture. Then at 1:00, shining a light on atrocities. A new documentary exposes war crimes in Syria. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at kojoshow.org.
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