Ever since America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorised the universal transition of old PSTN telephone networks to platforms based on Internet Telephony (IP), there’s been a scramble, as telecoms companies rush to replace their existing infrastructure of copper wires with fibre optic cabling. The FCC’s Chairman Tom Wheeler has suggested some guidelines to help smooth the process, and the UK’s telecoms watchdog Ofcom has issued recommendations of its own, as the convergence continues. In this article, we’ll consider some of the issues involved.
What’s Convergence, Anyway?Broadly speaking, convergence describes the coming together of various types of digital media – images, text, video, sound, etc. – so that they can be distributed to a wide range of devices, over several digital networks. Satellite, mobile, cable, digital terrestrial and broadband services are employed to move data packets, voice calls, and multimedia to consumer devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops, and televisions. The apparently seamless delivery of content over different platforms is being achieved through a convergence of the various networks, themselves – and the ongoing transition from voice networks based on traditional TDM to real-time Internet-driven communications is part of that.
Keeping Customers ConnectedOne of the fears for this transition is the negative impact on consumers, as telecoms carriers reduce or remove existing voice services during the change. The FCC has addressed this issue with a set of proposed rules, which would first require service providers to issue warnings to their customers before replacing their old infrastructure. Fair warning in this case has been given a time limit. The recommendations suggest that residential customers be notified three months ahead of any plans to retire the copper-based networks, while non-residential consumers should get around six months’ warning. Chairman Wheeler’s proposals would require carriers to offer their customers a contingency package, with backup power supplies in the event of outages, and to put a technical support plan in place immediately, allowing for 8 hours of standby power. This should be increased to 24 hours, within a three-year period. The FCC and Ofcom have given assurances that a competitive business environment should be maintained, throughout the transition. No hard and fast directives have been issued, yet. For now, there are draft proposals in place, requiring replacement services to be offered at rates in keeping with the legacy services they’re replacing – and with terms and conditions of contract that are similar or better.
Setting StandardsThe FCC proposals set out standards to assess whether or not the new telecoms services on offer are actually better than the old ones they’re replacing, and that the needs of consumers are still being met. The criteria suggested will take in issues like:
- Assuring the reliability of new networks, and ensuring they have sufficient capacity to meet demands.
- Maintaining a high standard of voice quality and Internet access.
- Ensuring that security protocols in the new IP-based networks are at least on a par with the legacy systems.
- Providing adequate support for emergency services and call centre operations.
- Allowing for redundancy, so that substitute networks or coverage from alternate providers keeps networks constant.
- Providing good levels of access and assistive technology for those with disabilities – including medical monitors and alarm services.