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For Immediate Release: October 23, 2013
Contact: Robert J. Thormeyer, 202-898-9382, rthormeyer@naruc.org

FCC Should Protect Consumers, Take Action on Telecom Services Classification: NARUC's Burke

WASHINGTON—As telecommunications technologies continue evolving, federal regulators must put consumers first and determine whether certain new services need stronger oversight to ensure all citizens receive the benefits of a competitive marketplace, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners told Congress.

NARUC Committee on Telecommunications Chair John Burke of Vermont, testifying today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, lauded the immense technological advances that have transformed the telecommunications sector and changed how the nation communicates.

Yet as these networks have evolved, the Federal Communications Commission has failed to offer the needed regulatory certainty that would protect consumers who rely on new technologies to stay in touch with family, friends, and loved ones. As a result, customers in rural areas are still plagued by call-completion problems and those who have moved from traditional service to Voice-over-IP no longer have all the regulatory protections they had before.

“The reasons why regulatory oversight remains necessary never changes, regardless of changes in technologies used to provide a service,” Chair Burke said. “That is why NARUC has for years consistently urged Congress (and federal regulators) to take a technology neutral approach to regulation.”

The hearing comes on the heels of an FCC decision in May to run trial programs for companies providing VoIP services. Noting that these services having been available since at least 2006, Chair Burke questioned why companies are seeking trials now. “The AT&T request, on its face, raises the question of why trials are needed now? And why are policymakers still talking about this technology almost six years after VoIP service was rolled out to almost 3 million AT&T customers—and at least 30 percent of traffic on the network is already IP-based?”

The transition to VoIP-based services is well underway, Chair Burke said. And instead of focusing on particular technologies or deregulation, the FCC needs to determine whether such offerings are considered “telecommunications services” or “information services.” The agency’s failure to classify “has continued to undermine the telecommunications market and spawn a plethora of unnecessary agency and court proceedings,” Chair Burke said.

That the FCC has left this issue unresolved for more than 10 years is “creating the regulatory arbitrage that undermined the intercarrier compensation system and is the raison d’etre for the call-completion problems that continue to plague rural businesses and homeowners in each of your States,” Chair Burke said. “It has also left some consumers who choose IP-based services with fewer protections than users of older circuit-switched/copper networks have, even though, from the consumer perspective, the voice service offered is exactly the same.”

Going forward, Chair Burke recommended that Congress should encourage the FCC to seek counsel about these trials from the Federal-State Joint Board. “The selection and details of any proposed trials can only benefit with significant State involvement,” Chair Burke said.

He also noted NARUC’s own Task Force on Federalism and Telecommunications will be releasing a final report next month on these issues. “At [the paper’s] foundation are core principles in line with that of the 1996 [Telecommunications Act]: consumer protection; network reliability and public safety; competition; interconnection; universal service; and regulatory diversity,” Chair Burke said.

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NARUC is a non-profit organization founded in 1889 whose members include the governmental agencies that are engaged in the regulation of utilities and carriers in the fifty States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. NARUC's member agencies regulate telecommunications, energy, and water utilities. NARUC represents the interests of State public utility commissions before the three branches of the Federal government.

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