Our nation's communications networks are currently undergoing a dramatic transformation. It's called the IP transition (for Internet Protocol), and this modernization effort will speed the availability of 21st century digital services and applications for all Americans. Access to reliable and ultra-fast networks will enable consumers and businesses to seamlessly connect computers, smartphones, tablets, GPS and other digital devices to reach a myriad of Internet, video, voice and data services and applications.
Just as the light bulb replaced the kerosene lamp and steam engines replaced sails, IP-based networks that carry video, voice phone calls, and data are taking over for the voice-only phone lines of the past century. Copper phones lines, organized into the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) met the challenges of the 20th century; and fiber technology and IP-based networks are needed for the 21st century. The only question is whether this change, which is complex and will affect every American in some way, will be haphazard or carefully managed -- in a fact-based and data-driven process to ensure that consumers are better off and that nobody is left behind.
A smart, managed transition means best-in-the-world broadband services for all consumers. It means continued private investment of tens of billions annually for the next three years by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile alone) and the jobs that come with it. For people of color and other minority communities, a well-managed transition promises expanded opportunity for high-quality and affordable Internet service so they can fully experience the benefits - in health care, education, jobs, and civic empowerment - that are possible in the digital age.
While African Americans and Latinos have been early and enthusiastic adopters of mobile technologies, they run far behind whites in home-based broadband. African Americans trail whites by about 16 percentage points and Latinos trail whites by about 19 points, in large part because many African Americans and Latinos can't afford broadband at home. Managed properly, in a process that includes affordability, pricing, and adoption rates in its analysis, a move to all-IP networks should provide additional competitive choices and affordable options for advanced home-based and mobile broadband.
That's why the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) has joined with ten other national minority organizations to endorse the relief AT&T has sought in its proposal that the Federal Communications Commission conduct a PSTN-to-IP transition beta test and carefully document all key metrics for closing the digital divide. As we wrote to the FCC: "the incremental approach of geographically limited trials provides the best means to obtain stakeholder and expert input to help raise and resolve complex issues in an open and transparent process. With minimal consumer disruption, the beta-trials would enable policymakers to choose the best and fastest path of how to migrate consumers from antiquated 20th century 'voice only' networks to the networks, services, and applications that will directly benefit the nation's economy and the African American community in particular."
AT&T's proposal adheres to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's oft-stated desire for "a focus on problem-solving, and an ethic of vibrant and open discussion, anchored in facts and driven by data." The process includes FCC supervised field tests to find out in practice what works and what doesn't. Like the trial run that guided the switch to digital TV, such tests would show how to maximize benefits, limit disruption, and provide a sure path for consumers to the benefits of all IP.
Universal connectivity essential and it is a public good of profound value. In Chairman Genachowski's words: "Wired and wireless broadband have become an indispensable platform for innovation, commerce, and civic engagement." Similarly, Commissioner Rosenworcel has opined, "No matter who you are or where you live, prosperity in the 21st century will require access to broadband services... we must make sure that modern communications are available in urban America, rural America, and everything in between."
But accessibility and universal service are not enough if the price tag is too high. That's a big issue for many people of color, who face a wealth gap, vis-à-vis whites, of 20:1 for African Americans and 18:1 for Latinos. That's why Commissioner Mignon Clyburn is right to focus on competitive markets to help make broadband affordable. "We must also ensure that competitive alternatives are available to consumers and that all providers continue to invest and innovate -- pushing one another to offer consumers the best services at the lowest prices," Clyburn has insisted.
The IP Transition will open a whole new world of economic opportunity and connectivity for communities of color.
Consumers are already embracing IP technologies. Nearly three-quarters have dropped their old copper lines in favor of IP-based services. Policymakers should help finish the job with a strategy based on facts and trial-tested in the field. Nobody should be left behind; nobody should lose voice service; and every American, including people of color, should experience the opportunities that are possible in the all-IP world we are entering now.