National Archives

While efforts in Connecticut to relax telephone provider regulations failed in the last legislative session, the Federal Communications Commission is beginning a set of experiments to prepare for “historic technological transformations” in the telecommunications industry as more consumers move away from traditional wireline services.

“New technologies can deliver efficient, innovative services to consumers, spark investment, and grow the economy,” the agency said in a January 30 press release. “But at this time, consumers can revert to legacy services if the newer technologies don’t meet their needs.”

A legislative battle erupted in Connecticut last year as AT&T and other telecommunications providers asked for changes in regulations given this shift in the marketplace.

The telecommunications companies were opposed by groups such as the AARP, who were concerned that landline customers would be underserved or put at risk if reliable wireline services were discontinued outright, or if the companies were no longer mandated to maintain the lines.

However, the FCC acknowledges that it might be difficult to require telecommunications companies to continue offering services for which there is dwindling demand.

“When adoption of new technologies reaches critical mass, many providers may ask the FCC for permission to cease offering those legacy services,” the FCC wrote.

The FCC experiments will take place in specific, yet-to-be-named geographic regions and will investigate a number of issues that came up in state debates on telephone deregulation, including emergency communications, services for people with disabilities, broadband access to rural areas, telephone number assignments, and ways the FCC can better handle and address consumer complaints in a less static marketplace.

“The FCC has voted 5-0 to take a significant step toward recognizing the impacts of public policy on innovation and technological progress by approving trials, that they will oversee, to study and plan accordingly for a transition toward Internet-based communications networks,” said AT&T Connecticut President John Emra. “Although the vast majority of consumers have already transitioned, it will now be strengthened by a process to ensure it is done right for everyone.”

AT&T estimates that approximately 75 percent of their traditional wireline customers have moved to other services since 2000. The company is now in the process of selling their entire traditional wireline business in Connecticut to Stamford-based Frontier Communications.

Consumer advocates are asking local policymakers to take a wait-and-see approach as the FCC conducts its experiments.

“AARP believes that all Americans must benefit from the IP transition,” Jennifer Millea, of the Connecticut AARP, said. “Until the FCC’s trials are complete and their results are available, we urge state policymakers to refrain from enacting any further deregulation legislation and policies. During these experiments, our state advocacy efforts to preserve consumers’ access to reliable and affordable phone service will continue. We are especially pleased that participation in these experiments will be voluntary.”

The FCC’s deadline for experiment proposals is February 20th, which will be followed by a public comment period ending March 31. The FCC will decide on which experiments to conduct at its May meeting.