The Transition from PSTN to VoIP: More Regulatory Questions than Answers

Public Policy Debate is Much Needed

We touched briefly on some of the regulatory issues surrounding the PSTN transition to an all VoIP network in a previous edition, and had a chance to follow up our initial coverage with Greg Rogers, the Deputy General Counsel at Bandwidth.  Though many of you may have not heard of Bandwidth, you have probably used their products before, since they offer wholesale telecom services to companies like Google, Skype, Vonage, and Republic Wireless. Bandwidth started off as a CLEC, and as a one of the CLECS who was a “last mover” to IP, they have had the advantage of building cutting edge unified communications services, also supporting over the top (OTT) VoIP.    

Rogers noted that the FCC is wrestling with range of issues about if and how they should regulate VoIP, with new services and platforms creating more questions than answers.  Looking back at early days for Vonage, one of the first debates was whether Vonage should support E-911 services—an issue that also was debated as a mandatory feature for the first IP-PBX callers.  Eventually everyone agreed that E-911 had to be supported over VoIP, offering caller locations to local emergency services agencies.  Naturally this is one feature that will be also be mandatory when the PSTN if replaced by a VoIP infrastructure.  Similarly, Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) must be supported. 

What is less clear is how to regulate text messages.  The FCC would like to see emergency service agencies support text as a way to contact 911.  While this may seem extraordinary, it is one very useful way for hearing impaired individuals to contact 911.  Location services needed by 911 can be straight-forward if the text message is generated by wireless phone that has an assigned phone number, but how can location accuracy be guaranteed if the text message is generated by an app that is not interconnected to a phone?

What is also unclear is what regulators should do about consumer protections in a post-PSTN world.  In the days of incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECS), multiple regulations protected consumer privacy.  Should similar privacy protections be guaranteed by regulation, and how does can enforcement be provided to protect against inexperienced or unethical operators who might provide nothing more than an voice app for VoIP callers?

Other questions: 

·        Should regulatory agencies step in to standardize routing practices that offer quality of service guarantees? 

·        Is voice over LTE (VoLTE) calling an application that rides over wireless broadband, or is it a phone call? 

·        Should WebRTC services also support 911 connectivity? 

·        How should the FCC classify these calls, or should they even have jurisdiction to classify a VoLTE or peer-to-peer WebRTC session?

We know that last week, the FCC issued a new set of guidelines about net neutrality, so they are pretty busy considering how to fairly regulate technology on many fronts.  But we also know the day is coming soon when legislators and regulators must address public policy for VoIP and unified communications – and that could make net neutrality look like “easy street.”

Our thanks to Bandwidth and to Greg Rogers for taking the time to highlight some of the regulatory challenges. 

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