FCC chairman: US phone system needs Internet makeover

Tom Wheeler expects a "diverse set of experiments" to begin next year aimed at replacing the country's aging analog transmission infrastructure.

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The Federal Communications Commission is getting ready to dial up an Internet update to the nation's telephone system.

New FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced Tuesday that the commission will begin a "diverse set of experiments" next year aimed at replacing the telephone system's traditional phone lines with networks that are based on Internet Protocol. While many consumers already make phone calls on the Internet using voice over IP, which transmits large amounts of data in packet form, much of the nation's telephone infrastructure still employs less-efficient analog technology.

Wheeler, who won Senate confirmation as the commission's chairman late last month, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that he expects the commission to vote in January on a package of recommendations to speed the initiation of experiments and analysis of their outcomes, as well as consider the associated legal, policy, and technical issues.

"This is what I call the Fourth Network Revolution," Wheeler wrote. "History has shown that new networks catalyze innovation, investment, ideas and ingenuity. Their spillover effects can transform society -- think of the creation of industrial organizations and the standardized time zones that followed in the wake of the railroad and telegraph."

AT&T, which had been pressing the FCC to begin experiments on the transition to an IP-based system, called the announcement "a significant step forward for the industry."

"Our current infrastructure has served us well for almost a century, but it no longer meets the needs of America's consumers," AT&T vice president Jim Cicconi said in a statement. "The transition to broadband and IP services that has already begun is driven by consumers who are moving to the Internet and choosing to connect in ways not imagined just a decade ago. Like any change it requires planning. The geographic trials directed by Chairman Wheeler will provide the real world answers needed to ensure a seamless transition."

Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, cautioned that it is important for the agency to show that the transition is not about the interests of AT&T or any other carrier.

"It impacts the lives and well-being of every American," Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "Nobody should doubt that this is a complex process, but it's important that the FCC lead the transition and take a major role in coordinating its outcome."