In December 2013, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) announced an initiative to review and update the nation’s communications laws.
“Written in a time when the telegraph was the prevailing technology and last updated when dial-up Internet was considered lightning speed, the Communications Act (of 1996) has not kept pace with the innovation that has been the hallmark of America’s technological leadership. We have made incredible strides, but we can be doing better,” said Upton and Walden in a press release issued recently. “Over the past year, the committee has sought and received thoughtful public and stakeholder feedback on a variety of issues to inform our work moving forward. As that work continues, we will begin drafting legislation next year to update the law to better meet the dynamic needs of the 21st century.”
In the year since the announcement, the committee has asked for and received public input through a series of white papers and has held a hearing with the former chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to better understand their perspective on the law. The Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC), a subcommittee of the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA), was among those submitting comments.
Among other issues, the fundamental goal of the alarm industry back in the 1980s and the early 1990s was to ensure the Bell Operating Companies (BOCs) would not be able to use their control of the networks to unfairly compete in the alarm business. When the Communications Act was amended in 1996, the alarm industry was able to secure a five-year moratorium on BOC competition, and subsequent proceedings in which AICC participated saw the creation of several safeguards against unfair competition going forward. As the nation transitions to broadband networks and Congress prepares to write new laws to govern them, the security industry once again faces competition concerns with the network providers.
Lessons From the Past
For a historic prospective, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 modified the original Communications Act of 1934, whose stated purposes were “regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, and for the purpose of securing a more effective execution of this policy by centralizing authority theretofore granted by law to several agencies and by granting additional authority with respect to interstate and foreign commerce in wire and radio communication.”
The Communications Act of 1934 also created the FCC to enforce its provisions. On January 3, 1996, the 104th Congress of the United States amended or repealed sections of the Communications Act of 1934 with the new Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the first major overhaul of American telecommunications policy in nearly 62 years.
One important purpose of the 1996 rewrite was to promote competition from competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs). An ILEC (incumbent local exchange carrier) is a telephone company that provided local service prior to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and which owns most of the local loops and facilities in a serving area.
The alarm industry worked tirelessly to ensure its services would be protected from unfair competition from the companies that own the networks these services rely upon. With regard to the 1996 Act, the most notable inclusion is section 275.
Section 275(b) requires an ILEC to provide nonaffiliated entities, upon reasonable request, with the network services it provides to its own alarm monitoring operations, on nondiscriminatory terms and conditions; and not subsidize its alarm monitoring services either directly or indirectly from telephone exchange service operations.
Section 275(d) prohibits LECs from recording or using in any fashion the occurrence or contents of calls received by providers of alarm monitoring services for the purposes of marketing such services on behalf of its local exchange carrier or any other entity.
Other provisions of the 1996 Act that protect alarm companies include Section 202, which provides for a general prohibition on discrimination, and Section 214, which mandates that a carrier must seek permission from the FCC to discontinue, impair, or reduce interstate services.
Before the 1996 amendment to the Communications Act, AICC also toiled to ensure the FCC’s regulatory requirements safeguarded the alarm industry, as well. In a proceeding that began in 1985 (and continued through the 1996 amendment) the FCC adopted a policy of “Open Network Architecture” (ONA). ONA requires that the overall design of a communication carrier’s basic network facilities and services allows all users of the basic network to interconnect to specific basic network functions and interfaces on an unbundled, equal-access basis. Its purpose was to create rules for the Bell Operating Companies (BOCs) to promote the development of enhanced services in an efficient manner, to prevent discrimination in the availability of the basic network facilities necessary to provide them, and to address potential for anti-competitive conduct that can result from BOC participation in unregulated markets.
Among the elements specified by the alarm industry as necessary elements that must be made available by the BOCs are:
- derived local channels that comply with UL and NFPA standards;
- ability to detect breaks in telephone line within 60 seconds;
- broadband links for video transmission;
- ability to reconfigure networks; and
- route diversity
However, these provisions do not uniformly apply to all technologies, particularly broadband services and providers. As the law prepares to evolve to address new broadband networks, it is necessary for the alarm industry to again take steps to ensure that the network providers are not able to discriminate in providing the network elements that alarm companies need to compete on a level playing field.
The Network Neutrality Debate
Net Neutrality, sometimes known as “Open Internet,” is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.
In December 2010, the FCC adopted an Open Internet Order, with three basic rules:
1. Transparency — Providers must publicly disclose the network’s commercial terms, performance and management practices.
2. No Blocking — No blocking of lawful content, applications services, or devices.
3. No Discrimination — No unreasonable discrimination, which includes discrimination based on specific applications or types of applications.
In 2014, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the No Blocking and No Discrimination rules, on the grounds that they amounted to common carrier regulation (broadband providers are not common carriers in most circumstances and the FCC does not have authority to enforce common carrier regulations upon them).
The FCC is currently considering ways to re-impose the No Blocking and No Discrimination rules and a notice-and-comment proceeding on the issue (in which AICC participated) recently concluded. AICC’s position echoes most of the basic principles of Net Neutrality: no carrier, regardless of the transmission mode (including wireless) should be allowed to throttle speed or access based on content or affiliation. This is to protect alarm companies from unfair competition should a carrier wish to interfere in favor of its own alarm offerings.
It is clear that, as the nation transitions to new broadband networks for its communications needs, it is necessary for the alarm industry to again take steps to ensure its voice is heard and its needs are met. While it might take at least two years to see a new legislation, now is the time to act.
With this rewrite of the Communications Act comes not only opportunity, but a potential threat to alarm companies. We at the AICC are hard at work to identify the relevant issues and develop a strategy favorable to the industry. We are looking at what works and what doesn’t work in the current law, and what needs to be included in the new law to ensure the provision of alarm and alarm monitoring services is protected from unfair competition. Many current protections should be preserved and applied to new technologies, regardless of the media over which these signals are carried (including wireless). It is imperative that alarm data is not throttled or blocked or otherwise hindered in its transmission by any network or service provider.
There should be reliable and stable communications networks and services, no matter the technology, and those networks must be consistent and certain traits of the TDM-based PSTN must be preserved. One way AICC sees to preserve such traits is through the adoption by the FCC of NFPA 72 and Managed Facilities-Based Voice Network (MFVN). MFVN should be functionally equivalent to traditional TDM-based telephone service provided by authorized common carriers with respect to dialing, dial plan, call completion, carriage of signals and protocols, and loop voltage treatment. Adequate backup power, another issue the FCC recently began seeking comment upon, needs to be provided throughout the systems. Alarms must be tested after change in service. No changes to technical parameters that affect the proper transmission of alarm signals must be permitted. Alarm data must be transmitted accurately and promptly from the end user premises to the central station along the entire communications path.
In the near future the resolve of the current participants in the alarm industry will be tested. Many of the issues examined here are not as crystal clear as the ones faced in the 1980s and early 1990s — but they are even more important.