Today, the FCC adopted a series of steps intended to solicit proposals from communications providers to conduct service-based experiments to explore the transition to all-Internet Protocol (“IP”) networks. Chairman Wheeler described today’s actions as “a big deal” and “an important moment.” He and the other Commissioners emphasized that the experiments would be completely voluntary, will focus on impact to consumer expectations, are not technology trials, and will not answer the controversial policy, legal, or regulatory issues raised by the transition to all-IP networks — such as whether the incumbent local exchange carrier interconnection and unbundling obligations under Section 251(c) of the Communications Act apply equally to all-IP networks. While Chairman Wheeler stated that the FCC will “need to protect the enduring value of competition,” the Commissioners’ comments at the open meeting confirmed that the FCC will tackle these issues in the future, in part with the data generated by the experiments announced today. While the order and other items have not yet been published, the FCC Staff outlined the key provisions of the order at the FCC open meeting, and the process by which the FCC will evaluate applications to conduct IP experiments (due February 20, 2014), including the value of the data the proposed experiments will generate and the ease by which consumers involved in the trials will be able to provide feedback.

The FCC will invite carriers and other providers to submit proposals to provide IP-based services in discrete geographic areas and for particular services. Following the proposals, the FCC will solicit comments from interested parties (due March 31, 2014) and confer with state regulators and tribal leaders, with a decision on which experiments will be accepted to be issued at the FCC’s May 15, 2014 meeting. Commissioner Rosenworcel likened the trials to a separate “sandbox” within a playground, where carriers and providers could test services and IP-based networks without interfering with the existing networks within a geographic region. The Commissioners and staff emphasized that the trials would focus on impact to consumer expectations and the FCC’s core values of public safety, universal service, consumer protection, and competition.

To better understand the transition to all-IP networks, the FCC also announced that it will be conducting a series of workshops in the spring to examine issues on rural broadband, numbering, broadband access to persons with disabilities, and public safety. For example, the FCC announced it will hold a workshop in April 2014 to examine how IP networks can be used to deliver next generation 911 services, taking into account the differences between TDM networks and fiber networks. The Chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, Admiral David Simpson, noted that his office is also focusing on the ability of all IP-networks to deliver continuity of communications during crises.

As a component of today’s actions separate from the experiments described above, the Commission announced it would conduct rural broadband trials funded by the Connect America Fund (“CAF”) that would be held in parallel, and would not interfere, with the allocation of Phase II CAF funds to price cap LECs in unserved areas. The Commissioners announced that all Americans must benefit from the transition. The rural trails would focus on connecting anchor community institutions to their neighboring communities. Non-binding expressions of interest for the rural experiments will be due on March 7, 2014. There will be a further notice from the FCC addressing budget matters and selection criteria, and additional actions leading to an order later in the year adopting the final framework for this component of today’s actions.

The actions taken today will also address telephone number assignment in all-IP environments, improvement of the TRS system – the FCC announced $3 million in research funding — and access for persons with disabilities in an all-IP world.

The text of the order, notice of proposed rulemaking, and a notice of inquiry in this matter adopted today are expected tomorrow or early next week.