Friday, June 07, 2013

"Everything's Up To Date In Kansas City"

"Everything's up to date in Kansas City." 
I'm a huge fan of Broadway musicals, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma," an American classic, is one of my favorites – for the way it captures the can-do American spirit, along with its memorable show tunes. 
Reading the communications trade press in the past week or so called to mind – yes, it's true! – a line from the "Oklahoma" tune, "Everything's up to date in Kansas City." Recall the time was 1906 as Oklahoma is on the verge of gaining statehood. Will Parker travels for the weekend to Kansas City, where he discovers he didn't have an idea "what the mod'rn world was comin' to." 
Among his discoveries, the telephone: 
"An' then I put my ear to a Bell telephone.
An' a strange woman started in to talk.
What next! What Next!" 
"Everything's up to date in Kansas City!" 
What called this tune to mind was an item in the June 3 edition of Communications Daily [subscription required] in which Google's Milo Medin, VP for access services, reportedly said this at a telecom event in…you guessed it, Kansas City: "We do not offer a voice product. Voice can be a pain to implement and carries a substantial regulatory burden with it." 
Well, Will Parker might turn over in his grave if he knew that a "100 short years later" Google is not offering a "voice product" in its new, highly-touted Kansas City fiber system. But because I am aware of the regulatory burden of which Mr. Medin speaks, I can feel Mr. Medin's pain. 
But I can also feel the pain of Verizon, for example, and other Ma Bell-offspring that remain stuck with legacy regulatory burdens in our now competitive telecom environment. Some of these regulatory burdens were put in place not too long after Will Parker visited Kansas City. 
The current back-and-forth between Verizon and Public Knowledge concerning the restoration of telephone service to New York's Fire Island, while somewhat unique, nevertheless is illustrative of Mr. Medin's – and my – point about legacy regulatory burdens. As consumers increasingly, and rapidly, turn away from service provided over old analog copper wires to broadband Internet Protocol ("IP") communications networks, regulators are met head-on with questions concerning the best way to promote continued investment in new digital broadband networks while, at the same time, protecting legitimate consumer interests. 
A good part of Verizon's legacy Fire Island copper network was destroyed last autumn by Superstorm Sandy. That's an indisputable fact. Because a substantial number of Fire Island residents and visitors already use wireless phones, and in order to get ready for the approaching 2013 summer tourist season, Verizon proposes to install a certain fixed wireless technology called Verizon Voice Link to restore Fire Island service, rather than re-installing wireline facilities. This has provoked protest from Public Knowledge representatives and perhaps others that Verizon should not be allowed to install and use the Voice Link technology, at least without further regulatory review to ensure compliance with the public utility-style "discontinuance of service" regulatory filings and so forth. 
In light of what Sandy did to a considerable portion of Verizon's East Coast network, especially including Fire Island, without much investigation on my part I am sympathetic to Verizon's effort to get the Voice Link technology up and running without having to run the gauntlet of a lot of regulatory rigmarole. But my real point here is not to take sides in the spat over Fire Island. You can read the recent blog, "The Fire Island Voice Link Situation," by Verizon Senior Vice President Tom Maguire for Verizon's perspective, and the blog also contains a link to the Public Knowledge critique. Decide for yourself. 
No, my point is more fundamental, transcending the Fire Island dispute. It has to do with the implication of the Mr. Medin's statement that, "We [Google] do not offer a voice product. Voice can be a pain to implement and carries a substantial regulatory burden with it." 
It is because of the continued existence of legacy regulatory burdens to which Mr. Medin refers that the FCC and state regulatory commissions must get on with the task of facilitating the ongoing transition to an all-IP world. And the regulators need to do so with a greater sense of urgency than they have displayed thus far. 
I have said before that Google's entry, even if somewhat timidly, into the communications business by way of constructing high-speed fiber networks in metropolitan areas like Kansas City, Austin, and Provo, Utah is a welcome development. But, as I also said in this late April blog, Google should not receive regulatory benefits and privileges that are not available to other communications providers on the same terms and conditions, whether the others are telephone companies or cable companies. 
The reality is that Google's "no voice product" position, while perhaps understandable from its business case perspective, just serves to illustrate the present asymmetric distortions resulting from the continuation of outdated regulatory regimes. There is an obvious gap, one with real consequences, between the legacy regulatory burdens Google so openly proclaims it will avoid and those burdens that continue to saddle the providers we sometimes still mistakenly refer to as the "incumbent" carriers. 
With the filing of its IP-Transition petition in November 2012, AT&T helped focus the attention of regulators on the need to move forward with the development and implementation of a plan for transitioning completely to all-IP networks. AT&T deserves much credit for doing so. But, unfortunately, the FCC so far appears to be treating the IP-Transition proceeding in a somewhat desultory fashion, rather than with the sense of urgency it deserves. 
Everything was up to date in Kansas City when Will Parker visited shortly after the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Now, in its own way, Google is bringing its own notion of up-to-datedness to KC shortly after the turn of the twentieth to the twenty-first century. 
But for "everything to be up to date" across America, it is crucial for the FCC and the state regulatory commissions to recognize, especially in light of the last two decades' remarkable technological advances and marketplace changes, that the regulatory environment needs to change as well.  In order to promote continued investment and innovation in the digital age, legacy regulatory burdens that are no longer necessary to protect consumers must be promptly reduced or eliminated. And certainly new ones should not be imposed.