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Mind Share
April 2003

Marc Robins

Softswitch's Coffin, And A Damper On Broadband VoIP?


For those of you not paying attention to the goings on at the FCC, a recent FCC review this past February of unbundled network elements, or UNE�s, a review that was organized in part to determine the fate of the UNE platform -- the platform that makes life possible for CLECs and other competitors to the incumbent ILECs -- seemed to create even more confusion and consternation about the environment for competitive communications services.

The primary fear among CLECs was that the FCC would issue an order that eliminated UNE, and thus would cut off their access to essential network elements needed to provide service to customers. Although this didn�t come to pass, the resulting order did shift authority to state utility commissions, allowing them to decide whether switching and transport should come off the UNE list on a market-by-market basis. In effect, rather than killing UNE itself in one fell swoop, the FCC has opted for death of UNE by 50 daggers. CLECs, already exhausted by their lobbying efforts, now must redouble them in each and every state they provide service to protect their access to transport facilities. I would imagine the only group rejoicing from this ill-conceived order is the attorneys.

Another part of the order potentially has the most impact in the IP telephony and enhanced services space -- an order that in our opinion could drastically impact the rollout of competitive broadband-reliant communications services: ILECs will no longer be forced to unbundle fiber-to-the-home or copper/fiber hybrid loops or in optical carrier-level transport circuits. Oh, and before I forget, the FCC also ordered that CLECs will no longer have access to UNE switching for business customers served by high-capacity loops.

What does this mean for ITSPs, CASPs and other competitive carriers looking to offer point-to-point broadband communications services to business and residential customers? And what does this mean to the vendors of IP-based network switching equipment, such as the softswitch crowd?

Access to broadband facilities would certainly be severely constrained. The motivation to invest in co-location facilities would plummet. The bandwidth that competitive broadband carriers could expect from high-capacity facilities where they currently enjoy pre-existing access could be drastically throttled back. And the softswitch vendors could face being shut out from switching facilities.

Due to the current wording of the broadband part of the order, competitive carriers faced with the prospect of transitioning off of the UNE platform would be unable to turn to softswitches to help migrate services to their own facilities. Sales of softswitches could plummet and the net result could be that CLECs and ITSPs would be blocked from adding or growing their IP telephony offerings.

It�s a safe bet that this battle is going to be fought out in court, and it is anyone�s guess whether the courts will offer any relief or come up with a better solution. And while the final ruling is months away, we can only hope that the voice of reason and common sense will prevail, and that the final ruling removes all traces of anti-competitive provisions and regulatory-choking nonsense.

Marc Robins is Vice President of Publications at TMC and Associate Group Publisher for INTERNET TELEPHONY� magazine. Marc has been covering the communications industry since 1980, and his column takes a look at some of the more interesting trends vying for attention in our industry. Please contact Marc with comments at mrobins@tmcnet.com.

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