Early on the morning of November 5, 2013, our industry changed forever, and you may have missed it. I could be referring to the launch of new software for the ESI Communications Servers and IP Server 900 product lines, but that would be pushy. The event I’m talking about is the ascension of Tom Wheeler as Chairman of the FCC. In a transition time when a new executive usually would be breaking in a new chair, Mr. Wheeler has made big moves. Before closing out his second week as Chairman, he put the nation on notice that the PSTN is likely to be voted off the island.
The rumblings of the FCC haven’t affected our industry much for the last decade, but Wheeler’s assertion that change must come — and quickly — puts that peace to an end. In this month’s FCC meeting, it is likely that the Commission will act on the AT&T petition filed last year (PDF) seeking rulings to ease the decommissioning of the traditional copper network. Reactions to the petition have ranged from “it”s about time” to “the sky is falling”; and, while it’s too early to applaud or condemn the FCC’s actions, there are some clear and far-reaching implications for interconnect companies and data VARs.
The ultimate dismantling of the entirety of the old network will take years, but the dismantling of local exchanges will happen swiftly — and, if AT&T gets its way, relatively without warning. Areas not defined as rural, meaning areas where broadband internet access is readily available, would see a very rapid “flash cut” takedown of PSTN services such as analog and PRI lines. Imagine the chaos some Monday morning when a hundred small business owners dial 9 and get a “CO line unavailable” error. This may seem a bit of a Chicken Little scenario, but consider that, to this day, over 90% of ESI systems are sold with FXO or PRI interfaces, with fewer than 40% of those connections being provided through VoIP conversion gateways like Integrated Access Devices (IADs).
Luckily, the majority of manufacturers in our industry have been making VoIP-ready systems for over a decade. For example, all current ESI systems have the ability to use SIP lines or interface to PSTN lines that are provided through an IAD. The time is right not only to begin identifying at-risk services but also to form conversion plans for moving off PSTN services to VoIP carriers such as ESI Hosted Services. In most cases, in-place systems can be made VoIP-ready with minimal change and at minimal cost. Interconnects and data VARs should be polling their installed bases to prepare for the change, and businesses should be reaching out to their installation companies to find out how to ready themselves ahead of what is sure to be a hectic conversion — as Wheeler’s FCC tries its hand at forcing technological evolution.