Switching in an IP Environment

FCC HQ

FCC HQ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this industry there are always interesting fights going on behind the scenes. In fact, it seems like a lot of the policies made by the FCC are in response to battles being waged between carriers. As the FCC intervenes in these fights they end up creating policy as they help solve issues.

This Letter is a correspondence with the FCC about a current dispute that is going on with Verizon and AT&T disputing the way they are being billed by Bandwidth.com. and Level3. This fight is an interesting one because it asks the FCC to affirm that is supports a migration to an all-IP network.

The dispute is over what is called OTT (Over-the-top) VoIP. OTT in this case means that there are voice calls being made from a service provider’s network for which the service provider is not providing the switching. Instead the service provider is buying switching from a CLEC like Level3. And all of the calls involved are VoIP calls, meaning that they are being delivered from the customers to the switching CLEC using the IP network rather than the public switched telephone network.

Here is how this might happen, although there are other configurations as well. The network in question is clearly an IP network to the customer in order for this to be considered as VoIP. That means it is either a fiber-to-the-home network, DSL over a copper network or a cable system that has been upgraded to send the voice over the data path. In a traditional TDM network the calls from customers are routed directly to a voice switch and that switch will decide what to do with the call based upon the numbers that were dialed. But in this scenario there is not a switch in the subscriber’s network. Instead, when a customer makes a call, a signal is sent to wherever the switch is located telling it where the customer wants to call. That remote voice switch then tells the network owner where to send the call. It is no longer necessary in a smartswitch environment for the call to actually touch the switch, but the switch is still the device that decides how to route the call.

The parties are fighting about whether access charges ought to be charged for an OTT VoIP call. Access charges are fees that long distance carriers pay at both the originating and terminating end of a call to compensate the network owner at each end for processing the call. Verizon and AT&T don’t want to pay the switching component of the access charges for these calls. They are arguing that since there is not a physical switch in the originating network that such charges aren’t warranted.

Broadband.com and Level3 are arguing that the switching is being performed regardless of the location of that switch. They point out that for the FCC to rule otherwise would be counter to the FCC’s desire for the telephony world to migrate to an all-IP environment.

If the FCC rules that AT&T and Verizon are right, they will be saying that a carrier performing a switching function on legacy TDM technology can bill for performing that function but that somebody doing it more efficiently in an IP environment cannot. I just published a blog yesterday talking about ways to share a softswitch and that is exactly what is happening in this case. In an all-IP environment the network can be more efficient and not every carrier needs to buy and operate a switch. They can instead contract with somebody else to switch calls for them which is easy to make happen in an IP environment. Access charges are designed to compensate local carriers for the cost of performing certain functions and one has to think that the network owner in this case is still having to pay for the switching function and should get to recover some of that cost.

In fact, there has been switch sharing for years even in the TDM world. I know several rural LECS who lease switching from their neighbors and who have not owned a switch for decades, and they have always billed the switching access charge element. That element reimburses you for the cost of switching and it really shouldn’t matter if that cost is made up of the depreciation on a box you paid for or else a fee you pay to use somebody else’s box. Cost is cost and the key fact is that calls can’t be made or received from an area if somebody isn’t doing the switching.

I always find arguments by the large RBOCs to be interesting because they wear many hats. AT&T and Verizon are wireless carriers, LECs and long distance companies, and often when one part of the large companies make regulatory arguments it will be contrary to the interest of one of the other branches of the company. In this case the long distance branches of the RBOCs are looking for a way to avoid paying access charges. But the LEC side of both Verizon and AT&T share switching and they do not have a switch any more for every historic exchange area. So to some degree these companies are arguing against something that another branch of their company is doing. And this is often the case in many regulatory arguments since these companies do so many things.

Hopefully the FCC will agree with Broadband.com and Level3. If they rule otherwise they will be telling carriers that it is not a good idea to establish switch-sharing arrangements that are more efficient than having every carrier buying the same expensive boxes. If the FCC really wants the telco world to move to IP they need to get rid of any regulatory impediments that would make an IP network less desirable than a legacy network. Hopefully the FCC sides with efficiency.

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