The big switch

Placeholder Image for Article Template

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 at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image: looking for code.

    How DOD embraced bug bounties -- and how your agency can, too

    Hack the Pentagon proved to Defense Department officials that outside hackers can be assets, not adversaries.

  • Shutterstock image: cyber defense.

    Why PPD-41 is evolutionary, not revolutionary

    Government cybersecurity officials say the presidential policy directive codifies cyber incident response protocols but doesn't radically change what's been in practice in recent years.

  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group