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Is Voice Special?

02.15.2013

Landline phones sit lonely and ignored in most people’s homes, but most people still want to talk on the phone, panelists agreed at today’s USTelecom Policy Briefing: “What’s the Point of Voice Regulation?” What’s changing is the type of device, and the type of network people are choosing for voice communications. Even Skype-addicted teen-agers revert to voice when it’s time to contact parents for things.

If voice is special, should it continue to be regulated the same way it’s been for over 100 years, even though the marketplace offers many equivalent services consumers enjoy without a regulatory mandate?

This is a simplified way of looking at a question USTelecom is raising in its petition to end dominant carrier regulation for companies providing switched access services.

What remains special about voice is that it’s universally connected, said John Nuechterlein, partner with Wilmer Hale. As technology evolves where voice services are mainly riding over the Internet, a key policy question is whether there should be a set of interconnection obligations on providers, Nuechterlein said. The hardest issues to solve are those dealing with interoperability at the higher levels of the network, he said. “What should regulations do to ensure there is no fragmentation?” he asked.

Protecting consumer interests, ensuring reliability and connectivity, is critical in planning networks of the future, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge.  “We have had the copper safety net, but that will be going away,” Feld said. But the phone network of the future “will need to work for everyone absolutely,” he said, warning that the transition is likely to confront unexpected difficulties.

While the phone transition already is taking place, a key question to ask is whether the regulatory structure in place is the right structure to take to the future, said John Mayo, director of the Georgetown University Center for Business & Public Policy. “I suspect not,” Mayo said. But that said, Mayo said he had a sense of optimism about USTelecom’s petition, given that the Federal Communications Commission eventually decided AT&T’s long-distance services were not dominant in a 1995 order.

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