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Thursday
Dec152011

The PSTN is Already in Transition… What is the PSTN, Anyway? 

Panelists Discuss Challenges for Public Safety, Disabled Individuals and Rural Networks

The FCC held two informative public workshops on December 6 and 14 to help itself and the industry better understand the recommendation that the PSTN ultimately be transitioned to an all-IP network. The FCC gathered around 50 experts to share insight on the transition from the perspective of ILECs, RLECs, mobile and fixed wireless, cable, consumer electronics, numbering, public safety, disability services, consumer protection, home security, VoIP, economics, engineering, academia, backhaul, and many more. If you think this sounds complicated with so many stakeholders—it was. But, it is necessary to understand how transitioning the PSTN will impact all of these industry sectors, because each one is deeply involved.

The first workshop, on December 6, included four sessions. The first two covered public safety and disability access issues, the third discussed rural network challenges, and the final session was focused on edge device functionality. This workshop set the stage for some of the broader, high-level issues that carriers and consumers will face if the PSTN is transitioned at a specific date—2018 was the popular target initially. Many of the panelists stated what their respective companies or organizations provide, what their customers or constituents need in terms of communications, and how their customers or constituents would be impacted if access to the PSTN vanished.

The public safety panelists seemed to agree that although many public safety networks are already transitioning to IP, many are still deeply entrenched on the PSTN. Allan Sadowski (North Carolina State Highway Patrol) explained that public safety is not necessarily about having the newest communication technology, it is about first response. Networks and communications equipment must be extremely reliable in every possible emergency situation, and public safety entities also face budget constraints as well as technical staff constraints. Challenges aside, the public safety panelists seemed excited about and interested in dynamic IP communications technologies that will benefit the public safety community. Brian Fontes (National Emergency Number Association) added that he approves of the 2018 PSTN sunset, but 911 services must continue to be available and reliable.

The disability services panelists were generally more concerned about how transitioning the PSTN to all-IP would impact their constituents—individuals who are blind, hearing impaired, physically challenged, elderly, etc., who might not willing or capable of adopting new technologies by a specific date.  Jenifer Simpson (Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology) explained that there are 15 million people who rely on disability communications services, and “most don’t know what the PSTN is.” There seemed to be some fear that the individuals in the disability community would be left behind in a PSTN-to-IP transition without proper consumer education coupled with easily available and affordable IP technologies. However, it was also acknowledged that there will be numerous new technologies for disability communications that are much better than today’s PSTN technology.

The third panel, “Technical Capacity, Capabilities and Challenges Facing Rural Networks” included representatives from ViaSat, Rural Cellular Association, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, Vantage Point Solutions, Midcontinent Communications and OPASTCO; and it was moderated by Commissioner Anne Boyle from the Nebraska Public Service Commission. Although the panelists covered a wide range of rural communications perspectives, a few did not dig very deep into the issue at hand—transitioning the PSTN to IP networks. Rather, some focused more on promoting their respective services. Steven Berry (Rural Cellular Association) discussed the importance of ensuring basic interconnection “regardless of technology.” Berry added that “The PSTN as we know it is probably going away;” and “The future is coming faster than we otherwise may think.” He is also concerned about how such a transition would impact competition, because “some may view this as an opportunity…to essentially eliminate competition.”

Larry Thompson (Vantage Point Solutions) provided some interesting input about the engineering challenges and opportunities for small rural providers. He asserted that the transition will not work if narrowband POTS service is still the only option in some areas, and broadband IP networks must be completely deployed end-to-end. Tom Simmons from northern midwest rural cable provider Midcontinent also added that broadband adoption is “a big part of the equation,” especially in very rural areas that have a high population of low-income and Native American households.

John McHugh (OPASTCO) argued that it is not really important to set a “date certain” to end the PSTN because the transition of technology is natural and “occurs on an orderly fashion.” He described how many rural carriers already have softswitches and extensive fiber networks, over 90% of OPASTCO’s members provide broadband, and RLECs “have gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide their customers with the latest technologies.” McHugh noted that some challenges in the transition include public safety, ensuring all consumer devices are IP-enabled, and converting the customers who simply don’t want broadband. He also added that it is financially and strategically challenging for RLECs to build broadband to everyone and then the consumer decides to get VoIP service from a 3rd party instead of the traditional telephone company.

The final panel focused on transitioning edge functionalities and consumer devices.  One question that was asked repeatedly throughout both workshops—and was never fully answered—was “What is the definition of the PSTN?” Brian Daly (AT&T) insisted that this is a fundamental question that must be addressed before the transition can occur. Once this is determined, we can look at all of the other aspects on the user end, like devices. Daly explained that many alarm systems, ATM machines, faxes, credit card transactions, pay phones, and other devices still rely on the PSTN and will continue to do so for many years, even if their numbers are low. Harold Feld (Public Knowledge) argued, “There will always be surprises” and “you have to design any transition mechanism to handle surprises,” such as the wireless microphone debacle in the digital TV transition.

Overall, this first workshop was a good introduction to the myriad issues at hand, and an insightful look at where certain industry sectors stand on the debate over whether or not the PSTN should be transitioned at a specific date. At an industry workshop I attended back in July, I got the impression that most of the participants were in favor of sunsetting the PSTN in 2018. However, I got a slightly different impression from both of the FCC’s workshops (the second workshop will be recapped tomorrow). The bottom line is that there needs to be a specific definition of the PSTN before the PSTN can be killed, and the longer this fundamental question goes unanswered, the longer the transition will take. On the other hand, if the transition to IP is indeed well underway already, do we really need a specific end date? What do you think? How do you define the PSTN?

You can watch this FCC workshop here.