Virginia Postrel’s famous book contrasted two different attitudes toward the future. One, which she called “stasism,” is focused on controlling and directing forces of change based on preconceived notions of how the future should unfold or, worse yet, a nostalgia for an idealized past. The other, which she called “dynamism,” embraces the unplanned (indeed “unplannable”) future with hope, as well as humility regarding human power to control phenomena that arise from the countless, decentralized decisions of individuals.
One might ordinarily expect a regulatory agency like the FCC to fall into the camp of stasists almost by default. After all, their job is to “regulate,” which can be another way of saying “control.” But Postrel recognized the need for some minimal set of rules to protect an environment in which all those decentralized decisions can be made. And sometimes even a regulator can surprise you.
Today, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking on modernizing its rules around the assignment of telephone numbers for IP-based service providers. The current rules, (like so many FCC rules), go back to the days when plain old telephone service was king and VoIP was a plaything for hobbyists. They do not permit IP-based providers like Vonage to obtain numbers directly from the numbering administrators. Instead, such providers must go to their TDM competitors in order to obtain telephone numbers.
In tandem with the NPRM, the FCC also announced plans to initiate trials by which IP-based providers could begin to obtain telephone numbers directly. As you may know, here at AT&T we’re big fans of trials. And we wholeheartedly support these. Indeed, an IP-based affiliate of AT&T has operated under a waiver of these same numbering rules for eight years. Needless to say, during that time none of the gloom and doom trotted out by the stasists has come to pass.
This proceeding will enable the FCC to gather critical information to transition numbering from its TDM past to its IP future. The FCC should be asking some fundamental questions about the future of numbering, such as should the number portability database incorporate IP routing information? Should we relax or eliminate the geographic component of telephone numbers? Should we move to nationwide, 10-digit dialing? Should IP-based providers be able to obtain numbers as needed, rather than in fixed quantities of 1,000 or 10,000? These are a few examples of the important and interesting questions that the FCC must consider to help it establish rules that embrace the future rather than “stand athwart history yelling stop.” But there ought to be no question about whether IP-based providers should have direct access to numbering resources. In the all-IP future, if they don’t, who will?