By Chip Pickering for the Broadband Coalition Blog
For consumers, customers and competition fans everywhere, a speech by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is music to the ears. This September, in his competition curtain raiser at 1776, Wheeler presented consumer data to drive his arguments for increasing broadband choices for more Americans.
It was a moment that also registered with business, nonprofit, and government customers and the competitive carriers that serve them.
Earlier this month, Wheeler again hit the right notes in his address to COMPTEL in Dallas, providing details to policy areas that must be addressed to preserve and grow competition.
Below is a sample of those words – and how those words are laying the groundwork for upcoming action – action that has the power to protect and preserve competition for a new generation of networks. More choices, more networks, more competition.
On the IP Transition:
Wheeler: “Let me be clear: transitions to IP are not a license to limit competition.”
Action: This statement alone, quite simply, crushes the arguments made by the largest incumbents, that upgrading one’s network justifies eliminating bipartisan competition laws – laws that have unleashed an American-led tech revolution – has always been absurd.
Their arguments are particularly absurd as a means of fostering investment and innovation as competitors that are, and want to continue, expanding and evolving their networks – such as XO, Windstream, EarthLink, Level 3 and tw telecom – need sound wholesale last-mile access and interconnection policies to grow, reach and provide more innovative services to even more customers.
Enshrining the Values of Competition:
Wheeler: “Technology transitions are good and they should be encouraged. But advances in technology will never justify abandonment of our values…they include access, interconnection, public safety, consumer protection and national security.”
Action: Technology transitions are not only good, they are the normal course of events in an ever-evolving network architecture. Networks are not static, they are dynamic. The 1996 Act established a framework that provides flexibility for innovation. These values should not be changed each time a new network widget is introduced.
By rallying around a set of network values – principles established collectively with other FCC Commissioners – Wheeler is building consensus for taking action. This action will benefit consumers and ensure public safety.
Last Mile Connectivity/Special Access:
Wheeler: “Communications policy has always agreed on one important concept: the exercise of uncontrolled last-mile power is not in the public interest. This has not changed as a result of new technology. That is as true for businesses and other enterprise customers as it is for consumers.”
“It’s hard to think of a business in America today that doesn’t use the Internet to serve its customers better. But whether the customer is a neighborhood pizza parlor, or a national pizza chain, the ability to enjoy the fruits of competitive networks often requires access to wholesale capacity.”
“As you know, special access lines are used by competitive providers to connect to customers over the last-mile. These lines transport massive amounts of voice and data traffic from cell phone towers and office buildings, as well as carry transactions from ATM machines and credit card readers. This is a critical issue for providers and customers, wired and wireless alike.”
Action: In asserting the need for access to last-mile capacity, Wheeler is making sure customers have access to more innovative choices, better service and better prices. That is what competition brings. Without the ability to purchase wholesale inputs for connecting competitive fiber networks to individual customer locations there is no real competition. Is competition really at risk? Well, earlier this year AT&T failed to address the needs of the wholesale market, even using “TBD” as an answer, in their IP trial filings. That’s a sign that action is needed to protect access to wholesale products, especially since AT&T is incentivized to eliminate wholesale connectivity – and by extension, competition – in its entirety.
Nonprofits, municipalities, schools and businesses of all sizes have chosen competitive providers for a number of reasons. Affordability is high on that list. Elimination of the wholesale market would raise prices for schools, local governments and small businesses. Thankfully, Wheeler has signaled that he won’t let that happen.
The FCC’s commitment to special access data collection, analysis and necessary market reform is also important. Wheeler’s words are good news. Reform of the special access market could save American business and institutions significant amount money. These services are the bridge that many new, competitive IP network providers need to reach customers with disperse network location needs.
Wheeler: “VoIP interconnection is an issue that needs to be solved so that customers – small and medium size businesses, anchor institutions like schools, health-care facilities, and libraries, and others – can enjoy the benefits of robust competition.”
“I’ve talked before about the regulatory see-saw: if industry acts in the public interest, FCC involvement will be low, but if the public interest is not being served, the Commission will not hesitate to act. VoIP Interconnection is a great example of the see-saw in action.”
Action: Without interconnection, you simply can’t make the network work. It won’t work for competitive broadband providers, it won’t work for streaming companies, and it won’t work for tech start-ups. The next great competitive innovation – the next VOIP, or the next cloud, or the next Twitter – could literally be stuck on an innovation island without interconnection policy, never reaching consumers and business customers.
Recently, we have seen interconnection used as a weapon by those who hold market power. If you want a faster Internet, you want the FCC to act fast. Enshrining competitive interconnection policy for the next generation of networks could become Wheeler’s lasting legacy.
Anticompetitive Market Lock-Ups:
Wheeler: “You have told us that lock-up provisions requiring large volume and term commitments in existing contracts are causing uncertainty, unreasonably raising costs, and delaying the transition to IP for your customers.”
Action: Being locked up in a contract can mean a competitive carrier is being “locked out” of buying wholesale services from another provider, or from deploying its own facilities to a business service customer (or for its own use). Many business customers face this obstacle to facilities-based competition in their office parks. A competitive market for special access will never develop if providers are locked into buying most of their special access services from a Bell provider year over year.
Future of Copper:
Wheeler: “An important aspect of network competition is access to copper plant.” “I don’t have to tell you how, even in a high-speed, fiber-driven world, copper pair are often the last leg of delivery.”
“Our goal should be to improve our copper retirement process to strengthen our core values, including competition.”
Action: Once again, Wheeler is debunking a huge Bell myth: the copper network is junk and has no value. Not true. Today – and tomorrow, competitors and the large incumbents will be dependent on copper through a wide range of technologies, including Ethernet over Copper to provide IP-based connections. Copper today allows for broadband connections over 100 megabits per second. These are speeds that will benefit consumers in rural areas, schools on a fixed budget, and business customers with multiple locations. Copper is available nationwide, affordable and scalable, and will be a staple in the broadband universe for years to come. Wheeler is making it clear that Bell plans for copper retirement aren’t an excuse for lowering the curtains on competition.
Wheeler: “Let there be no mistake: there has been competition before the transition, and there will be competition after the transition.”