Out with the Old, In with the New

In the spirit of spring cleaning, the Commission’s April meeting will feature two items to sweep away old, 20th-century regulations and replace them with new rules that reflect 21st-century technologies and markets. Moving out: the old “special access” regime and mandates for TTY communications. Moving in: a new, technology-neutral framework for business data services (BDS) and real-time text for Americans who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, speech disabled and deaf-blind.

Business data services, historically known as special access, are little known but hugely important in our connected economy and society. These dedicated network connections are used by offices, retailers, banks, manufacturers, schools, hospitals and universities to move large amounts of data. Consumers use them indirectly every time they withdraw cash from an ATM or swipe their credit card at a retail store. And mobile networks are heavily dependent on the use of BDS for the backhaul of mobile traffic. This dependence will only grow as wireless carriers expand their networks and move into 5G wireless, which promises tremendous opportunities for economic growth, job creation and U.S. competitiveness.

If we want to maximize the benefits of business data services for U.S. consumers and businesses, we need a fresh start. The marketplace is changing. Cable companies are entering the market, and Internet Protocol (IP)-based technologies can now deliver services traditionally satisfied by legacy, circuit-based products. Yet, competition remains uneven, with competitive carriers reaching less than 45 percent of locations where there is demand.

That’s why I have circulated to my fellow Commissioners a draft Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) to create a new regulatory framework for the evolving business data services market. This proposal is based on four key principles:

  • Competition is the best way to ensure consumers benefit. But government must ensure that non-competitive markets don’t harm consumers and businesses or stifle innovation. To that end, I propose to identify those markets that are competitive, and those that are not, and to adopt a tailored regulatory framework to mirror those distinctions.
  •  The new approach must be technologically neutral. Rules need to reflect today’s economy and the differences between products, places or customers, and can’t be based on artificial distinctions between companies or technologies. All BDS services should be governed by the same overarching legal principles.
  • Commission actions should incentivize technology transitions. The supply of circuit-switched BDS services is still big business, but the future is in IP-based, packet-switched communications. That’s why the item also contains a Tariff Order proposing to bar certain specific contractual practices that slow down the switch from legacy TDM services to newer IP-based services.
  • Govermental actions should be focused on the realities of the marketplace that exists today – and tomorrow. For example, I propose that tariffing of BDS be ended – in all markets for all BDS products.

The Further Notice asks questions on how best to construct the new BDS regulatory framework consistent with these principles. It also seeks comment from all interested parties about how best to determine where competition does, and does not, exist, looking to competition among products, to the supply and ability to supply BDS in specific geographies, and to the needs of different classes of customers.

It is my intent that the Commission move forward to adopt a final Order in 2016.

Just as we want to usher in a new regulatory framework to seize the opportunities of business data services, we want to facilitate the use of new technologies to improve the quality of life for Americans with disabilities.

For the past 50 years, people who are deaf, hard of hearing, speech disabled and deaf-blind have been using TTYs to communicate by text over the phone. But TTY technology was developed for use on the legacy public switched telephone network. Consumer and industry stakeholders agree that this technology is not only outdated and slow, it also doesn’t work well in the IP environment.

The good news is there is a far better alternative: real-time text (RTT). This technology allows text to be sent immediately as it is being created. It is unlike SMS or other text messaging services in that it does not require a party to a call to first complete a message and press “send” before the message is transmitted to its recipient. Because it allows text to be immediately conveyed as it is being composed, RTT is the only type of text communication that allows a natural flow of conversation akin to voice telephone calls, enabling call recipients to see what the sender is thinking as his or her thoughts are sent by text.

Real-time text is designed for today’s IP networks, and it is considered to be superior to TTY technology with respect to its speed, latency, reliability, features, and ease of use. RTT can also be built right into off-the-shelf devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and computers that already have the ability to send, receive and display text – unlike TTYs, which are specialized assistive devices that have to be attached to phones via a coupler.

Current FCC rules require service providers and equipment manufacturers to support TTY technology, but not the superior real-time text. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I’ve circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to replace our rules requiring TTY support with rules defining the obligations of these entities to support real-time text over IP-based wireless services. Again, this is just the start of a proceeding, and we are seeking answers to a lot of questions. But if we eventually adopt rules, we can make sure that millions of Americans with disabilities who rely on text to communicate have accessible and effective telephone access as communications technologies make the transition from circuit-switched to IP-based technologies.  


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