The Five Stages of Telecom Transition 1

(Remarks prepared for the December 14, 2011 FCC Workshop, “The Telephone Network in Transition”)

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced an influential model for understanding responses to catastrophic loss, known as the Five Stages of Grief: (1) Denial, (2) Anger, (3) Bargaining, (4) Depression, and finally (5) Acceptance.  Kübler-Ross was writing about the death of people, but all of us here are also contemplating the loss of an of old friend: the Public Switched Telephone Network.

The twilight of the PSTN is an epochal change in telecommunications.  We are losing the fulcrum of our policies, industries, and experiences.  As we say farewell, let us avoid the pitfalls on the path before us.

Denial

We cannot plan for what we do not anticipate.  However one defines POTS and PSTN, they will be vestigial for most Americans within a decade, and possibly for virtually all Americans in half that time.  We must confront that fact squarely and publicly. As an initial step, we should systematically catalogue three things: (1) the valuable capabilities of the PSTN that should be preserved in the public interest; (2) the technology and market trajectory of the transition, based on the best evolving data; and (3) the specific regulatory conflicts, ambiguities, and opportunities that policymakers will face.

Anger

This is not going to be an easy process.  It will put many companies and communities on unfamiliar ground.  Even as society collectively wins, there will be local losers, or those who have to expend substantial resources in the transition.  Those who see the shift as avoidable or dangerous will throw themselves across the tracks.  We must anticipate their objections and address them.  Particularly incendiary topics such as public safety, accessibility, security, privacy, robustness, and charges for stranded costs should be confronted sooner rather than later.

Bargaining

The FCC should reach out to every relevant constituency.  It must promote the idea that the end of the PSTN involves both shared opportunities and shared sacrifice.  Those who know how to game the regulatory process will use this transition as an opportunity to do just that.  And it is naïve to imagine that deals will not be made. Let’s expose them to the sunshine.  Let us define to the greatest extent possible our shared goals, so that we each can pursue our proprietary interests against a clear backdrop.

Depression

Knowing that change needs to occur doesn’t make it happen.  We only need to look at a transition in a related industry: the adoption of the IPv6 protocol for the Internet.  Everyone has known for over a decade that IPv6 is essential in light of IP address exhaustion, and yet until very recently, progress was painfully slow.  To avoid that fate, we need energy and enthusiasm behind the PSTN transition.  As we saw with Digital TV, the way to do that is to establish legal or marketplace forcing factors, however artificial, that create what the management thinker Tom Peters called a “bias for action.”  A date-certain sunset is one such means, but not the only one.

Acceptance

The FCC, the industry, public interest groups, and international organizations must acknowledge the need for transition planning. The end of the PSTN should be a communications policy commonplace, like the promotion of competition or universal access.  A step in that direction is to name where we are going, so that it becomes real and tangible.  Is the successor to the PSTN the NGN (Next Generation Network)? The PCN (Public Communications Network)? The VoiceCloud?  Or is it simply the Internet?  Let’s find a meme sticks, and then stick with it.

Let me clear.  The end of the PSTN is a good thing.  It is precisely what Schumpeter had in mind with his metaphor about gales of creative destruction pushing forward the great voyage of capitalism.  The PSTN is dying because it has achieved its goal, and we are surpassing it.  The choice for us now is whether its final end will be cause for grief, a time for panic, an invitation to gamesmanship, or a non-event.  Those are not decisions we will make then; they are choices we make now.

The FCC is to be commended for taking on the end of the PSTN in an early and public manner.