No Dialtone: The End of the Public Switched Telephone Network
62 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2013 Last revised: 22 Oct 2013
Date Written: October 1, 2013
All good things must come to an end. The set of arrangements known as the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) is the foundation for the modern global communications system, and the myriad benefits it delivers. Today, the era of the PSTN is swiftly coming to a close. The PSTN’s technical, economic, and legal pillars have been undermined by three developments: the rise of the Internet; customers and providers abandoning wireline voice telephony; and the collapse of the regulatory theory for data services under the Communications Act. This paper provides a framework for moving beyond the PSTN, by distinguishing the aspects of the existing system that should be retained, reconstituted, or abandoned.
The transition from the PSTN to a broadband network of networks is the most important communications policy event in at least half a century. It calls into question the viability of the Federal Communications Commission, the Communications Act, and the telecommunications industry as we know it. Yet the significance of the transition is not widely recognized. Attention has focused on specific manifestations and consequences, such as the rise of “wireless-only” households and problems with rural call completion.
The time has come to address the situation squarely. The lesson from prior structural transitions in communications such as digital television, the AT&T divestiture, and the opening of local telephone competition is that, with good planning and the right policy decisions, they can proceed smoothly and open new vistas for competition and innovation. Without them, they are dangerous opportunities for chaos that can gravely harm the public interest.
There are two mainstream views about how to handle the PSTN transition. One is that it represents the completion of a deregulatory arc begun at divestiture and accelerated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The other is that longstanding regulatory obligations need only to be extended to a new world. Both are wrong, because they treat the PSTN as a unitary thing. What we call the PSTN is actually six different concepts: 1) a regulatory arrangement; 2) a technical architecture to provide a service (wireline voice telephony) 3) a business and market structure; 4) interconnection obligations; 5) a social contract; 6) strategic national infrastructure.
These aspects define not only the obligations on network operators (such as common carriage, universal service, and law enforcement access), but also demarcate the roles of the FCC and other agencies (including state public utility commissions, the FTC, the Department of Justice, and NTIA).
The six-faceted definition of the PSTN provides a roadmap for the transition. The elements earlier on the list are rooted in the particular historical, legal and technical circumstances that gave birth to the PSTN. They are anachronistic in the current environment, and should be restructured or, when appropriate, eliminated. The later elements are public policy obligations that should be satisfied regardless of the historical circumstances. Separating the dimensions of the transition in this way also makes it possible to focus in on specific challenges, such as the technical standards for addressing and service interconnection in an all-IP environment, separate from broad public interest questions such as the level of functionality that should be guaranteed to all Americans.
By examining the content of each aspect of the PSTN in light of the business and technological landscape today, we can ensure that the transition to a digital broadband world reinforces, rather than undermines, the achievements of the past century of communications policy.
Keywords: telecommunications, broadband, PSTN
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