US regulators agreed to allow telecom companies to conduct trials of digital voice services delivered over fibre-optic and wireless links instead of copper wires.
The move, approved unanimously by the five Federal Communications Commissioners, could eventually pave the way for US “common carriers” including AT&T and Verizon Communications, to replace old telephone services that use copper wires and circuit switching technology and are expensive to maintain and repair.
“We invite service providers to propose voluntary experiments in the deployment of IP-connected networks,” said Tom Wheeler, the FCC’s newly appointed chairman. While the trials would be voluntary, the FCC sees them as a way to gauge the effect of a switch to digital technology including VoIP (voice over internet protocol) on consumers and small businesses.
The FCC decision to allow the trials comes 18 months after AT&T, the largest US phone company, asked the commission to consider the regulatory and other implications of such a switch. Much of the legislation governing US telecoms companies dates back to the early 1900s when the first copper-based telephone networks were built.
In the wake of superstorm Sandy, Verizon sought permission from the FCC to replace its damaged copper phone lines on Fire Island near New York City with wireless service using LTE technology. Ultimately, however, the company bowed to consumer and political pressure and agreed to replace the copper lines with fibre-optic links.
The big US telecom companies want to switch to IP-based networks running on more modern infrastructure because they argue it is more efficient and cheaper to run. But opponents are concerned that by making the switch, telecom companies might also seek to reduce or eliminate regulatory safeguards including, for example, their obligation to provide universal phone service to remote and rural areas.
A statement issued by the FCC chairman after the vote acknowledged both these viewpoints. It described the transition to IP networks as “a good thing” but added that the FCC also recognises “the enduring values” of universal service, public safety, competition and consumer protection.