Telecommunications

The big switch

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Federal agencies are talking with telecommunications firms about trials of IP-based networks in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission's initiative aimed at allowing carriers to replace their traditional copper-based networks with all-IP technologies.

The FCC voted in late January to allow telecom carriers to explore providing voice services using IP delivered over cable, fiber or wireless networks instead of their aging -- in some cases, as much as 40-year-old -- circuit-switched public networks. Traditional telecom providers have to get FCC permission to move to IP.

Those "common carriers" say customers continue to move away from landline phone networks to more efficient, less costly, IP-based networks. The FCC's plan allows carriers to set up voluntary, three- to six-month-long regional trials to test how such a transition would work. Limited trials would also ensure that the peripheral services that rely on the copper networks continue to function, such as school fire alarms, E-911 systems and others.

The effort is vital because the Internet has become a crucial engine for the U.S. economy, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during a panel discussion Feb. 6 in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Journal.

In addition, the change is important for the government because federal agencies are often overly reliant on the public telephone network's aging transmission infrastructure, said Chip Pickering, CEO of COMPTEL, a telecom carrier and supplier association.

That reliance can drive up costs for agencies and mean less competition for federal telecom contracts as carriers move toward all-IP networks and away from older technology, Pickering said in remarks to FCW after the panel discussion. The former six-term Mississippi congressman added that the targeted services IP-based networks can provide could change competitive dynamics among carriers in federal agencies' favor.

Some agencies have already begun talking with carriers about the transition to all-IP networks. Robert Quinn, senior vice president, federal regulatory and chief privacy officer at AT&T, told FCW that his company has been talking with the Federal Aviation Administration about an IP-based network trial. He said the agency is using traditional digitized voice technology that can be costly to the agency and carriers to support.

As the IP transition continues, the FAA and other federal agencies using older telecom technologies will eventually have to decide how to upgrade their equipment to accommodate advancing networks, he added.

"Our members have reached out to government agencies to participate in the trials," Pickering said adding that federal agency participation could be "an important part of the trials."

Quinn and Pickering urged more federal agencies to become involved in the trials to avoid what might be a costly problem down the road.

The FCC's effort should prompt agencies to factor the transition into their budgeting plans, Quinn said. "It's up to agencies to determine their path," he added. "It's better to have the discussion now than seven years down the road."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer covering acquisition, procurement and homeland security. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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