As expected, the FCC today formalized requirements for telecom service providers that want to retire copper network infrastructure – a move that drew a mixed and passionately-argued response from stakeholders.
In an order adopted at today’s FCC meeting, the commission said service providers seeking to retire a copper-based service must notify retail customers at least three months in advance, including informing customers that replacement service may not operate during a power outage. Additionally carriers must offer customers the option of purchasing backup power, explained FCC officials at the monthly commission today, where the order was adopted. Initially service providers will have to offer devices providing backup power for eight hours but within three years the required backup time will increase to 24 hours.
Copper Retirement Requirements
The order adopted today also includes an interim rule that applies to incumbent carriers who provide competitive carriers with one of two types of services, including special access services at DS-1 speed and above and commercial wholesale platform TDM-based services. Until the FCC issues new special access rules, incumbents will be required to provide competitive carriers with wholesale access on reasonably comparable rates, terms and conditions, FCC officials explained. The new special access rules are expected in connection with the special access proceeding that has been pending for several years.
Ultimately incumbent carriers also will be required to provide notice at least six months in advance of any plans to discontinue copper-based services purchased by other carriers on a wholesale basis, unless the incumbent replaces the services with comparable fiber-based alternatives.
Today’s action also included the adoption of a notice of proposed rulemaking that proposes criteria the commission would use to evaluate whether an alternative service is a suitable replacement for a service that an incumbent proposes to discontinue. In a press release, the FCC listed the proposed criteria, including:
- Support for 911 services and call centers
- Network capacity and reliability
- Quality of voice and Internet service
- Interoperability with devices and services such as alarm monitoring and medical monitoring services
- Access for people with disabilities, including compatibility with assistive technologies
- Network security in any IP-supported network that is comparable to the legacy network
- Plan for outreach to affected customers
- Coverage throughout the service area, either by the substitute network or via service from another provider
The final item could be challenging to resolve, as some incumbents anticipate situations in which they cannot cost-justify leaving remaining copper operational or deploying fiber to a customer –and in some cases, the carrier also may not offer a wireless-based replacement. How willing competitors may be to serve such a customer is unclear. In some but probably not all cases, a cable company, competitive local exchange carrier or wireless provider might offer a suitable alternative.
Friends and Foes
Both Republican FCC commissioners had harsh words for the order adopted today by a majority vote of Democratic commissioners, expressing concern that replacement service requirements were overly strict and could force incumbents to leave existing copper infrastructure in place and decrease carriers’ ability to invest in modern infrastructure.
“Every communications and edge provider better think long and hard before introducing new services because you may be locked into providing them for a very long time,” commented FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly.
O’Rielly also quipped that he “was under the impression that [fellow commissioners] wanted consumers to adopt broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, which means fiber” – a reference to the 25/3 Mbps benchmark that the commission recently set for an annual report measuring broadband adoption.
Fellow commissioners “found a way to be for and against fiber at the same time,” O’Rielly said.
In a statement, jonathan Banks – senior vice president for law and policy for telecom service provider association USTelecom — echoed O’Rielly’s comments. “USTelecom members have been investing billions of dollars every year to deliver modern broadband services that far surpass the capabilities of older networks. . . These investments to deliver better, faster, more reliable modern services make up the essential compact between providers and customers. We are concerned that today’s FCC orders handicap delivering on this compact in the name of keeping a regulatory structure under which fax machines provide a communication service of such importance that they must be preserved.”
Not every incumbent carrier expressed opposition to the FCC’s action, however.
“The FCC has acted wisely and taken an important step to preserve competition and accelerate the IP transition,” said Windstream Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs Eric Einhorn in a statement. “Competition holds down prices for small and medium businesses, government entities and non-profits and enables them to choose from a variety of providers and innovative service options. Windstream applauds Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel for acting to ensure the IP transition isn’t misused to raise prices and inhibit competition.”
Einhorn’s comments are particularly interesting considering that Windstream in some areas is an incumbent carrier that will be subject to the FCC requirements. But the carrier also has been transitioning into a business-focused nationwide provider and as such, it relies heavily on last-mile facilities that it leases from incumbents – and Einhorn’s comments suggest that transition is well underway.
Putting rules in place for copper retirement is just one aspect of the broader TDM-to-IP transition underway in the telecom industry. Already the debate has become quite heated and the FCC has not yet tackled some of the thorniest issues. The debate around IP interconnection, for example, is likely to make the copper retirement debate seem like a childhood spat.