WASHINGTON —In another remake of a decision under his Democratic predecessor, FCC Chair Ajit Pai and the commission's Republican majority voted Thursday on changes to the timetable for the copper-to-fiber-based IP network remakes that were billed as "speeding the transition to modern broadband networks."
Former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler's Democratic majority had taken a different approach to the transition from legacy copper networks to fiber back in 2015, putting in various requirements to maintain those legacy nets and services during the transition, which Pai said at the time was needlessly slowing the transition.
One of the big changes is the requirement that carriers get the FCC's permission before migrating to fiber nets, something the Wheeler FCC also required.
"With broadband an essential component of modern life, the FCC is working to ensure its rules allow carriers to invest in modern networks rather than devote scarce resources to outmoded legacy services," the FCC said in outlining the changes. That was Pai's point back in 2015 when he dissented from the Wheeler approach, calling it command and control regulation that was dragging out the copper retirement process.
The new reforms also deal with expediting rebuilds after natural disasters and access to utility poles, one of two pole-related items the FCC approved at its Nov. 16 public meeting, the other dealing with easing historic preservation reviews.
The item's pole attachment and citing reforms included barring pole owners from charging for make-ready fees they have already recovered from other users, speeding dispute resolution (a 180-day shot clock), and allowing equal access to poles.
The copper retirement-related reforms include speeding up that retirement, expediting applications for carriers who want to stop accepting customers for low-speed voice and data service, discontinuing previously grandfathered services, discontinuing wholesale services, and eliminating the Wheeler FCC requirement that carriers get FCC permission before upgrading to fiber.
The FCC pointed out that providers must still support 911 and that voice services must still be accessible to people with disabilities whatever the network.
Back in 2014, incumbent telcos had been pushing the FCC not to "graft" legacy interconnection and other copper-based regs on a new fiber-based network world. But Wheeler had made it clear that what he saw as protecting consumers' access to vital services was a public interest goal and part of his "Network Compact."
Pai signaled his new compact was with a future that required the FCC to help speed the transition to the Internet of Everything. "That all-IP world is one that is more resilient, more robust, and more competitive. That’s why a key to closing the digital divide is maximizing providers’ ability to invest in building the modern networks that fuel the Internet economy," he said of the item. "The bottom line is that the IP transition is here, and that consumers are better off with it. The FCC can either strand investments in the modern equivalent of the fax machine or it can deliver value for consumers, today and tomorrow. I’m glad this commission has its eyes on the future."
Democrats Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, who had supported the 2015 approach, were hardly on the same page, at least with the copper retirement portion of the item.
"I know that networks need to be updated. I understand the need to swap out old services and replace them with new infrastructure. But it defies logic to suggest that this can be done without working with the customers and communities where network change occurs," she said. "To those who are affected by change—consumers, businesses, state officials, tribal authorities, and first responders—the FCC says tough, figure it out, you’re really on your own. Because I think this is cold and cruel comfort for the millions who rely on these services today and are unlikely to see better broadband in the future, I dissent."
She did support parts of the pole-attachment reforms, but that was it.
"[T]he Commission previously adopted a variety of rules regarding network changes, copper retirement, and service discontinuances," said Clyburn, referring to the 2015 rules. "I stated back then that I believed we struck the appropriate #ConsumersFirst balance. But today, that balance has been upset...This item radically reduces notice periods for a variety of scenarios, making it harder for consumers, states, government agencies, and competitive carriers to understand and react to changes in the network. Indeed, the item outright ignores input from our sister agency, the NTIA, when it pleads with the Commission to retain requirements that carriers provide notice to, and work with government customers."
Not surprisingly, providers were celebrating Pai's new approach.
"The regulatory changes approved by the FCC today represent a major victory for anyone who wants to close the digital divide and see all Americans connected to broadband internet service," blogged USTelecom President Jonathan Spalter.
"Today’s wireline order removes legacy barriers to infrastructure deployment, enabling providers to hasten customers’ transition from legacy copper networks to faster and more reliable technologies, such as fiber," said Verizon SVP of federal regulatory and legal affairs Will Johnson.
A version of this article originally appeared on B&C.