How AT&T Is Planning to Rob Americans of an Open Public Telco Network

by S. DEREK TURNER,  |  published on March 3, 2013

AT&T has a sneaky plan.

It wants to exploit a loophole in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s rules to kill what remains of the public telecommunications network — and all of the consumer protections that go with it. It’s the final step in AT&T’s decade-long effort to end all telecommunications regulation, and the simplicity of the plan highlights a dysfunction unique to the American regulatory system.

AT&T and other big telecom carriers want to replace the portions of their networks that still use circuit-switching technology with equipment that uses Internet Protocol (IP) to route voice and data traffic. But because the FCC previously decided that it has no direct authority over communications networks that use IP, this otherwise routine technological upgrade could lead to a state of total deregulation.

We are already living with the consequences of the FCC IP decision: an uncompetitive broadband market. Our broadband providers enjoy the kinds of high profit margins that would make a 19th-century robber baron blush. And our ability to use these networks to communicate openly and freely is under constant assault. Meanwhile, consumers in other countries not only have better access, but they pay far less for far better services.

But there are large portions of the public telecom network that don’t use IP, and that are still subject to varying degrees of regulatory oversight — including traditional landlines, alarm circuits, and many of the “special access” connections that carry voice and data traffic from cellular towers.

Now AT&T wants approval to convert all of this to an all-IP system. And because of the FCC’s flawed view of IP, this move would jettison all of the public interest protections that govern common carriers like AT&T. (The centuries-old “common carriage” concept applied to entities like railroads, shippers, and telecoms that transport goods often using public rights-of-way; since these functions are critical to commerce, common carriers are usually regulated even if they don’t operate in monopoly markets).

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