U.S. seeks trials to test transition to digital phone networks

Reuters

WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) - U.S. wireless providers like AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc on Thursday received a nod from regulators to test a transition of the telephone industry away from traditional analog networks to digital ones.

The Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted in favor of trials, in which telecommunications companies would test switching telephone services from existing circuit-switch technology to an alternative Internet protocol-based one to see how the change may affect consumers.

The experiments approved by the FCC would not test the new technology - it is already being used - and would not determine law and policy regulating it, FCC staff said. The trials would seek to establish, among other things, how consumers welcome the change and how new technology performs in emergency situations, including in remote locations.

"What we're doing here is a big deal. This is an important moment," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. "We today invite service providers to propose voluntary experiments for all-IP networks."

The move in part grants the application by AT&T to conduct IP transition tests as companies that offer landline phone services seek to ultimately replace their old copper wires with newer technology like fiber or wireless.

"We cannot continue requiring service providers to invest in both old networks and new networks forever," Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, said.

Some consumers, particularly in rural or hard-to-reach areas, have complained about poor connectivity of their IP-based services. Advocates have also expressed concerns about the impact of the transition on consumers with disabilities.

"I think we must be mindful of the impact this transition has on consumers -- their needs, their expectations and their willingness to embrace network change," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat.

The trials will be voluntary, and regulators require that the experiments "cover areas with different population densities and demographics, different topologies, and/or different seasonal and meteorological conditions." They also require that no consumers be left disconnected.

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