AT&T exec urges faster FCC review of plan to retire wired networks

Carrier hopes to be operating an all-wireless, all-IP, all-cloud AT&T network by 2020

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson Tuesday called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to move faster in reviewing the carrier's request to move to an all-IP, all wireless network nationwide.

In remarks at a Goldman Sachs conference Tuesday morning, Stephenson said that he's encouraged that incoming FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler "knows how fast [the wireless industry] moves ...and knows that regulations can actually slow the rate."

Stephenson said he's hopeful that Wheeler and the FCC "moves along" AT&T's request, which effectively means retiring traditional wired networks.

AT&T is seeking FCC guidance on the procedures needed to discontinue traditional wired TDM (Time Division Multiplexing) telecommunications in communities around the nation and replace it with a more efficient and profitable wireless approach that also moves networks from expensive data centers into a cloud-based design.

"It's a big darn deal, and will take investment, but the amount of cost it removes from the legacy [system] is dramatic," Stephenson said in his presentation, which was webcast. "The biggest restraint is regulatory because we can't just retire certain technology. Our all-wireless, all-IP, all-cloud is moving at a blazer pace."

Stephenson noted that AT&T submitted its request to the FCC 10 months ago.

"After six months, [the FCC] asked for more information. We said we wanted two market trials to see what it would be like to have all-IP, all-wireless and all-cloud," Stephenson said. "Four months later, we're not much further than we were. There's no guidance on how to move the industry from an old, archaic technology to a modern technology."

Stephenson said AT&T is investing billions of dollars in the network conversion and said AT&T's stated goal is to have the TDM network retired and replaced with the new wireless one by 2020. "That's a logistics and operational feat," Stephenson said.

Moving away from wired networks has created controversy in some U.S. communities and raised worries from consumer lobbying groups.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal areas of New Jersey and New York last October, Verizon Communications started installing Voice Link wireless service to homes where copper phone lines were destroyed and deemed irreplaceable.

Subsequently, hundreds of copper phone line customers in the affected areas complained to the FCC and state public service commissions.Interest group Public Knowledge urged the FCC to conduct a broader study of how the agency reviews cases when carriers plan to use alternate technologies to replace copper wires.

Stephenson said that moving AT&T networks from data centers to a cloud-based architecture will result in a 70% improvement in efficiency.

"We believe the cost dynamics are working our favor," he said. "At no other time in my career of 31 years have I seen that the bias for capital spending is a downward bias. I'd be very disappointed if we don't [expand profit margins]."

AT&T outlined part of its plans for moving to the cloud in a statement issued on Monday. In the announcement, AT&T launched a Supplier Domain Program 2.0, which explains that AT&T will select vendors in in the next year to help move to the cloud.

For all of AT&T, Stephenson said the carrier is expecting annual revenue growth rate of 4% to 5%, a result that is helped by more efficient wireless technologies such as 4G LTE. LTE costs 50% less to build and deploy than the most previous prior network technology, he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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