Voice in the box?

The following is a work in progress. Pardon the disorganized nature of the thoughts. Please add your comments.

As this letter from the High-Tech Broadband Coalition suggests, the FCC is thinking about, in effect, adopting the "old wires / new wires" proposal first floated by Verizon’s Tom Tauke, keeping some unbundling obligations on existing circuit-switched networks but eliminating them for "last mile intgrated packet/fiber facilities." Dan Berninger of Pulver.com is drumming up opposition, on the grounds that the Bell companies don’t need incentives to invest, and such distinctions create a dangerous precedent for regulating the Internet by application.

I continue to struggle with this issue. My heart is with the competitors fighting the Bells, but my experience at the FCC convinced me that it’s exceedingly hard to regulate your way to competition. The FCC will announce its new rules next Thursday, February 13, barring any last-minute disagreements among the Commissioners. Here’s one way to put a positive spin on what they are doing.

In Isaac Asimov’s novel, The Naked Sun, an evil robot is about to start a chain reaction that will slowly turn the Earth radioactive and un-inhabitable. The hero of the story, another robot named R. Daneel Olivaw, comes to stop him. In deparation, the bad guy claims his actions will actually benefit Earth, by spurring colonization of other worlds and the spread of humanity across the galaxy. Olivaw knows it’s just a rationalization, but he realizes that the evil robot is actually right. He lets the chain reaction happen, and (as unfolds in Asimov’s great Foundation series) humanity does conquer the galaxy, leaving Earth behind.

Are the Bells playing the role of Asimov’s evil robot? Putting circuit-switched voice networks into a box, and moving to a realm that regulates at the application layer, may not be such a crazy idea. Not because the Bells need deregulation, but because the FCC needs to start regulating things that actually matter for today’s networks. We need a layered model of regulation, and that means looking at what happens at the logical and application layers as well as the physical layer.

Putting the existing voice networks into a regulated box will give the Bells incentives to continue starving them to death. In the long run, that’s a good thing. Voice is just one application that passes over the global packet-switched Web of inter-networks. Let the old-fashioned voice networks die. But in return, we should ensure that their replacements are not closed "multi-media" networks, which the phone and cable TV incumbents have long dreamed of. No, what we need are networks that have openness baked into them, so that monopolies at one level cannot prevent competition at other levels.