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Senior Editor

Campuses face complex regulations

Aug 09, 20045 mins
NetworkingRegulationTelecommunications Industry

Changing landscape puts services - and revenue - in question.

CHICAGO – Federal uncertainty over telecom policy has left network executives in higher education pondering cost trends, technology bets and campus infrastructure options.

But the growing availability of broadband access, coupled with the surge in commercial VoIP services, is likely to force the FCC to take action on at least some issues in the next 12 months, according to Jeff Linder, a specialist in telecom regulation and a partner in Wiley, Rein & Fielding, a Washington, D.C., law firm.

He spoke at last week’s annual conference of the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, still known by its original acronym, ACUTA.

Key issues include how and to what degree IP-based telecom services will be regulated and priced; the decline in college revenue from reselling phone service to students; and federal and state roles in the emerging question of wireless LAN (WLAN) and cellular interoperability.

ACUTA goes on the offensive

In the past two years, ACUTA has expanded its Washington, D.C., presence in part because of the changes taking place in telecom and the emergence of IP networks, said Walter Czerniak, association president of the organization.

More importantly, the group has shifted from a defensive strategy, which ensured that rule changes don’t hurt institutions, to a proactive strategy, by engaging the FCC staff on a range of issues, often in partnership with other higher education groups.

“It’s gotten to the point where the FCC will now call and ask us what we think of some new vendor proposal,” Czerniak said.

Linder is emphatic that ACUTA and similar small but focused groups can have an effect on FCC deliberations.

“ACUTA brings real interests and expertise on specific issues,” he said. “Instead of submitting a 200-page document that vaguely covers all points, you file a five-page document that says, ‘Here’s our experience in this area, and what it means.’ The FCC staff will [actually] read these.”

ACUTA’s involvement in policy matters is not an academic exercise. Colleges and universities have long had a lucrative business reselling phone service to students.

That revenue stream, coupled with telecom charge-back policies to college departments, has funded campus telecom infrastructures for years.

But that revenue is evaporating as more students arrive on campus with cell phones, as VoIP and other IP-based carrier services proliferate, and as competition continues to hammer profit margins on phone service razor thin.

“ACUTA encourages the expansion of IP-enabled services,” said Randal Hayes, chairman of ACUTA’s Legislative/Regulatory Affairs Committee. “But in transforming the communications infrastructure from switched to IP, you have to address the new technology in a way that makes sense, but without causing the old plant to fall apart.”

“VoIP is a disruptive technology,” Linder told his ACUTA audience. “It’s platform-independent: You don’t need to control the underlying network to offer VoIP [and related] services. It really is becoming reality, and very quickly.”

That’s because many of the technical problems have been solved, and the spread of broadband access to the public network makes VoIP services feasible for a mass market. But it’s unclear how these trends, and the FCC’s response, will affect campuses.

VoIP rate questions

The FCC is examining the implications of exempting IP-based telephony services from fees for network access, Universal Service and other traditional charges.

Linder said there seems to be an emerging consensus that VoIP is clearly an alternative to traditional voice calls and can be treated in a similar way, with some traditional access fees.

“In about a year, you’ll get a more rational rate structure,” Linder predicted. “But it’s a political nightmare for the FCC. And it’s immensely complicated. The FCC will be forced to act on this.”

A closely related question is whether the states will regulate VoIP and other emerging services that use their traditional regulatory structures and assumptions. The FCC is under growing pressure to stake out IP services as a federal domain, Linder said.

Another area of confusion for some campuses is the need to ensure that students can get emergency service. The FCC mandate for Enhanced 911 services, to provide pointpoint accuracy to locate cellphone emergency calls, is an ongoing area of confusion for some campuses. Schools have to ensure that residential students can get E911 serivce.

The FCC still struggles with the question of whether to fix a deadline for a resolution, or let carriers, IP service providers and equipment makers make their own progress, Linder said.

In the meantime, campuses are left pretty much on their own to work out E911 arrangements with state authorities. South Carolina, for example, so far has not adopted its own E911 standard, says Heather Mitchel, telephone system and campus intranet administrator at Wofford College, a small school of about 1,100 mainly residential students in Spartanburg, S.C. “Without that, it’s harder for us to ensure students can get help” on a timely basis, she says.

“ACUTA advocates close partnerships between campus public safety and local [external] jurisdictions,” ACUTA’s Hayes said.

A just-emerging area of technical and regulatory confusion is voice calls that might traverse WLAN and cellular networks. Products are coming out but there are no standards or rules for interoperability.

ACUTA’s Czerniak said the association has just begun internal talks about this subject and will form a committee or working groups to engage carriers and the FCC.

Senior Editor

I cover wireless networking and mobile computing, especially for the enterprise; topics include (and these are specific to wireless/mobile): security, network management, mobile device management, smartphones and tablets, mobile operating systems (iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry OS and BlackBerry 10), BYOD (bring your own device), Wi-Fi and wireless LANs (WLANs), mobile carrier services for enterprise/business customers, mobile applications including software development and HTML 5, mobile browsers, etc; primary beat companies are Apple, Microsoft for Windows Phone and tablet/mobile Windows 8, and RIM. Preferred contact mode: email.

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