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CFP'93 - EFF

CFP'93 - The Open Platform

March 9-12, 1993 in Burlingame, CA

A Proposal by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (7/92)


Until now the nation's telecommunications policy debate has largely been perceived as a struggle among entrenched commercial interests over who will control and dominate markets such as information services, manufacturing, and long distance service. We believe it is time to refocus the debate by seeking near-term technological, economic, legislative and regulatory solutions which will encourage the rapid development of a diverse information services market and help realize the democratic potential of new information media.

In the Fall of 1991, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was invited by Representative Edward Markey to testify before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance on the subject of Bell company entry into the information services market. To address concerns that Bell entry into this market would reduce the diversity of information through anti-competitive behavior, EFF proposed the rapid deployment of a digital information platform, using existing technology and facilities, which could be made available to all on a ubiquitous, affordable, equitable basis. Our testimony suggested that narrowband Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) could be such a platform.

Narrowband ISDN, if offered nation-wide, and tariffed at affordable, mass-market rates, can offer end-to-end digital service without major infrastructure investments. This narrowband technology can also serve as a transitional telecommunications platform until national switched broadband access options become available early in the 21st century. With an ISDN platform in place, information entrepreneurs will soon be able to reach an expanded market in which to offer text, video, and interactive multimedia services. Public agencies, private communications, computer, and publishing firms, and even individuals will be able to access an inexpensive, widely available medium in which to publish and communicate electronically. Other technologies from outside the public telephone network may also come to play an important role in providing digital access, but because of the importance of the public switched telephone network, ISDN has a key role to play.

The EFF believes that ISDN deployment and other developments in the public telecommunications infrastructure should proceed with the following goals in mind:

  • make end-to-end digital service widely available at affordable rates;
  • promote First Amendment free expression by reaffirming the principles of common carriage;
  • ensure competition in local exchange services;
  • foster innovations that make networks and information services easy to use;
  • protect personal privacy; and
  • preserve and enhance equitable access to communications media for all segments of society.
A robust, open telecommunications infrastructure is certainly important for the international competitiveness and economic health of our nation. But also, as people become more dependent on telecommunications services in their daily lives, the character of the evolving infrastructure and the laws which govern its operation will come to have a profound impact on politics, culture, education, and entertainment. Therefore, the steps that we take at this critical moment in the development of telecommunications technologies must be carefully considered.

Feasibility and Benefits of Rapid Deployment of ISDN

ISDN is a platform which could stimulate innovation in information services in a way that will benefit much of the American public that currently has no access to electronic information services. Lessons from the personal computer industry can help guide telecommunications policy makers in the development of an information infrastructure. The desktop personal computer represented a revolutionary platform for innovation of the 1980's because it was affordable, and was designed according to the principle of open architecture, allowing numerous hardware and software entrepreneurs to enter the computer industry.

To bring the benefits of the information age to the American public in the 1990's, we need to build an open, ubiquitous digital communications platform for information services. Just as the personal computer brought access to computing power beyond large organizations, widely available ISDN can enable the citizen's access into the Information Age.

What is ISDN?

ISDN (Integrated Digital Services Network) is a technology designed for the public switched telephone network which allows low-cost communication in data, voice, video, and graphic media over the existing copper telephone network. ISDN is not an information service, but a transmission medium - a platform - for delivering and receiving information in a variety of formats. Crude data communication is possible over standard analog telephone lines now, but the fact that the existing transmission system was designed for voice, not for data, means that transmission rates are very slow, error rates are high, and equipment (modems) are difficult to use. Basic Rate ISDN offers transmission speeds fifteen to sixty times faster than most data transmission schemes now used on voice grade lines. More than just the increased speed, what is important about ISDN is that it offers the minimum capacity necessary to carry full multi-media - voice, text, image, and video - transmissions.

ISDN is not a "field of dreams" technology. It is a fully-developed international standard that has been extensively tested in the United States and has already been implemented in the public switched telephone networks of other countries. Real applications have been demonstrated over ISDN lines. Major communications carriers have field-tested distance learning applications which allow students in classrooms all across a city to participate in multimedia presentations run by a teacher in a remote location. Inexpensive desktop and home video conferencing systems are now being introduced which run over ISDN lines. These applications have real value, but are only a small sample of what entrepreneurs will inevitably produce if ISDN were widely available. Yet, the promise of this service can only be realized if the local phone companies tariff and deploy the service.

Prospects for Near Term ISDN Deployment

EFF's Open Platform proposal for ISDN is a work-in-progress. We have received valuable comments and support from key players among the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), interexchange carriers, information providers, and state public service commissions, all of whom believe that ISDN can play a crucial role in developing the information arena for the benefit of all today. To date, we have reached the following conclusions:

  1. ISDN deserves a second look because it can meet many of the information needs of residential and commercial users long before a public, switched broadband network will be available.

  2. ISDN can be made widely available within the next three to five years, without massive infrastructure investment or new technology development.

  3. ISDN can and must be tariffed as a basic service at affordable rates.

  4. ISDN is a critical and even necessary transitional technology on the path toward the future broadband national public network.

  5. The benefits of other networks that are already important information distribution media can be enhanced by interconnection with ISDN.

More investigation of many issues is still required, especially the regulatory economics of deployment. Still, we are optimistic that ISDN is an important step along the path to the development of a telecommunications infrastructure that meets the diverse needs of the nation.

Second Look at ISDN

ISDN can meet many of the critical information needs of both residential and commercial users even without broadband capacity. ISDN is the only switched, digital technology available today in the public switched network that can be deployed widely in the near term. For text-based data users and publishers, ISDN offers a dramatic advantage over data transmission technology currently used by individuals and small organizations. One of the two 64kbits/sec data channels available in the ISDN Basic Rate Interface can fax 30 typewritten pages of text in one minute, and send a 1000-word newspaper article in less than one second. Dramatic advances in video compression make transmission of videoconference images possible today, and all indications are that new compression algorithms will allow real-time transmission of VCR-quality video images in the near future. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities found, in the course of its recent investigation of ISDN, that "residential customers will benefit from the availability of significant enhancements to services such as home banking, library access, work at home, home health care monitoring, home shopping, and information access."1

Some telecommunications cogniscenti view the promise of narrowband ISDN as quite limited, because they are aware that ISDN has languished unimplemented for over ten years, and because they know that other copper-based transmission technologies offering much higher bandwidth are available. We are fully supportive of implementing higher capacity narrow band and broadband networks in the future, when technology and user demand make it possible.

The personal computer industry shows that raw power is not all that matters in a new technology. By about 1980, corporations already had good access to massive computational facilities at the institutional level through their mainframes and minicomputers. But individual workers had no effective direct access to those facilities. In practice, all the computing power didn't directly help the white-collar worker get her job done. Personal computers made a difference in the office and in the home because they were directly under the control of the individual, despite the fact that they were anemically under-powered. Similarly, there may be high data capacity at the institutional data network level already, but if individuals and small organizations can't connect with it, its value is limited. We must make tapping into the digital, switched network as easy as ordering a phone line for a fax. Just as PCs enhanced individual productivity, ISDN can enhance individual connectivity.

In this regard, we are encouraged by the fact that the computer industry has recently joined the debate on telecommunication infrastructure. With the growing recognition that the hardware and software they design will be severely limited by the lack of a nation-wide switched, digital communications infrastructure, key players in the computer industry have lent their support to EFF's Open Platform Proposal as a transitional infrastructure strategy.

ISDN Means An Available Infrastructure Soon

In sharp contrast to fiber optic-based broadband technologies, only modest infrastructure investment is required. Digital central office switches are required for ISDN2, but with the Bell companies aggressive deployment of a fully-digital switching and signalling system (Signaling System Seven), the bulk of the infrastructure necessary to support ISDN is already installed or planned.3 Some Bell companies such as Bell Atlantic and Ameritech plan to have over 70% of their subscriber lines ISDN-ready by the end of 1994. Other companies, however, project deployment rates as low as 21%. On a national level, 56% of all lines are expected to be capable of carrying ISDN calls by 1994.4 (See Appendix A)

Many segments of the telecommunications industry are engaged in a concerted effort to make nation-wide ISDN deployment a reality. Problems that haunted ISDN in the past, such as lack of standard hardware and software protocols and corresponding gaps in interoperability, are being addressed by National ISDN-1. This joint effort by Bell companies, interexchange carriers, and switch manufactures, and Bellcore, is solving major outstanding standards problems. By the end of 1992, a single hardware standard will make ISDN central office switches and customer premises equipment interoperable, regardless of which vendor made the equipment. Following National ISDN-1, National ISDN-2 will address standards problems associated with ISDN Primary Rate Interface (PRI), a switched 1.5Mbit/sec service with 23 separate 64kbit/sec data channels and one 64kbit/sec signalling channel.

Led by Bellcore, the communications industry has a nationwide demonstration of real, off-the-shelf, ISDN services planned for November 1992, called TRIP'92. A variety of local and national ISDN services will be demonstrated on a working ISDN network covering twenty cities around the country. TRIP'92 will show that Bell companies, long distance carriers, and information providers can work together to provide the kind of ubiquitous, standards-based service that is critical to the overall success of ISDN.

Additional interconnection problems do remain to be solved before ISDN is truly ubiquitous. Among other things, business arrangements between local Bell companies and interexchange carriers must be finalized before ISDN calls can be passed seamlessly from the local exchange to long distance networks.

ISDN Must Be Priced Affordably

If ISDN is to be a platform that spurs growth and innovation in the information services market, it must be priced affordably for the average home and small business user. Here, the telephone industry has a valuable lesson to learn from the computer industry. The most valuable contribution of the computer industry in the past generation is not a machine, but an idea - the principle of open architecture. Typically, a hardware company (an Apple or IBM, for instance) neither designs its own applications software nor requires licenses of its application vendors. Both practices were the norm in the mainframe era of computing. Instead, in the personal computer market, the hardware company creates a "platform"- a common set of specifications, published openly so that other, often smaller, independent firms can develop their own products (like the spreadsheet program) to work with it. In this way, the host company takes advantage of the smaller companies' ingenuity and creativity.

Platform services, even if they are ubiquitous, are useless unless they are also affordable to American consumers. Just as the voice telephone network would be of little value if only a small fraction of the country could afford to have a telephone in their home, a national information platform will only achieve its full potential when a large majority of Americans can buy access to it. Therefore, the tariffs adopted by state public utility commissions are critical to the success or failure of ISDN.

Since few states have adopted single-line business and residential ISDN tariffs, there is a window of opportunity to establish pricing principles for ISDN which make it viable as a mass-market service. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) recently completed proceeding should serve as a valuable example to other states. The Massachusetts regulators found that ISDN is a "monopoly, basic service that has a potentially far-reaching and significant role in the telecommunications infrastructure of the Commonwealth."5 The DPU also recognized that the "risks of pricing the service too high are of much greater concern... [because] high rates could discourage the development of new ISDN-dependent technologies and their applications."6 The final tariff approved has a monthly access charge of $13.00 for single line residential service and usage sensitive fees of 2.6 cents for the first minute and 1.6 cents for each additional minute. After much dispute, New England Telephone (NET) based the usage sensitive component of the tariff on measured voice rates already in place in Massachusetts. We believe that NET's decision to link prices to existing basic voice rates is an important signal to other LECs and other state commissions that low-priced ISDN service is indeed possible.

Studies by experts in the field of regulatory economics indicate that ISDN can be priced affordably. Dr. Lee Selwyn found, based on data from the Massachusetts proceeding, that the average monthly price for ISDN service should be approximately $10.7 An analysis of ISDN deployment by a leading consumer advocate also indicates that ISDN can be offered at a relatively low cost to consumers. Dr. Mark Cooper, Research Director of the Consumer Federation of America, found that average ISDN monthly costs are now at roughly $7.50, and can be expected to decline to $4.50 in the near future.8

To encourage widespread use of ISDN, it must be priced at or near the price levels already in place for basic voice services. ISDN line charges will be somewhat higher than analog voice services because there are some additional one-time capital costs associated with offering ISDN service, but basing prices on voice telephone rates is possible and rational from a regulatory stand point.

The digital switches which carry ISDN calls treat voice and data calls in exactly the same manner. A five minute data call uses no more or less switching resources than a five minute voice call, so their pricing should be equivalent. Some states may chose to tariff ISDN only with measured (usage sensitive) rates, while others may also want to adopt a flat rate scheme similar to that which exists for residential voice services. The economics of this issue need more study, but we believe that both options have arguments in their favor.9

Current prices for ISDN telephones, data links, and in-home network terminators are high. An ISDN telephone with voice and data interfaces costs roughly $1000. If these price levels persist, many small scale users will never enter the market. However, with increased demand, ISDN terminal appliance prices can be expected to follow the steep downward curve of VCRs and PCs prices. When first introduced, VCRs cost well over $1000, but now sell below $200 for a basic unit.

Ill-considered pricing policy could, alone, cripple ISDN's chances for success. We are hopeful that Bell companies with more aggressive deployment plans will file such residential tariffs and set a precedent for progressive, mass-market pricing that will make ISDN affordable. In any event, legislative or regulatory action may be necessary to guaranty affordable rates and widespread availability of ISDN around the country.

ISDN: A Critical Transitional Technology

ISDN is not a permanent substitute for a broadband network, but it is a necessary transitional technology on the way to public switched broadband networking. Though some might like to leap directly to a broadband network, the entire telecommunications and information industry still has much to learn about designing a broadband digital network before it can be implemented.10 Though a first generation of broadband switches are now being introduced, many basic questions still remain about the most appropriate design for a broadband network that can replace or be built on top of the analog telephone network. These questions are impossible to answer without experience in the ways that people will use a public, digital switched network.

Some are reluctant to make any investment in ISDN because it is perceived as old technology. But this is not an either/or choice If implemented at prices that encourage diverse usage, ISDN will provide important new services to all segments of society, and offer vital perspectives on how to design the next generation of public, switched broadband networks.

ISDN Enhances Extant Networks

The public switched telephone network is a critical, central part of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure, so ISDN has a vital role to play in the overall information infrastructure. In addition to being an information platform itself, ISDN can interconnect with other networks that offer a variety of information resources. Cable television systems, which already provide broadband connections to 60% of U.S. homes and pass by 90%, might evolve to provide a new digital data service. Using ISDN, cable systems could develop interactive video applications. The Internet, an international packet network that serves universities, government organizations, and an increasing number of commercial enterprise, has over two million users and access to vast archives of information. Wireless transmission systems such as PCS (Personal Communications Systems) could also serve as open platforms for information services.

Guiding Communications Policy Principles

The public switched telephone network is just one part of what we call the National Public Network, a vibrant web of information links that will come to serve as the main channels for commerce learning, education, politics, social welfare, and entertainment in the future. With or without ISDN, the telephone network is undergoing dramatic changes in structure, scope, and in its growing interrelationship with other communications media. These changes should be guided by a public policy vision based on the following principles.

A. Create an Open Platform for Innovation in Information Services by Speedily Deploying a Nation-wide, Affordable ISDN To achieve the information diversity currently available in print and broadcast media in the new digital forum, we must guaranty widespread accessibility to a platform of basic services necessary for creating information services of all kinds. Such a platform offers the dual benefit of helping to creating a level playing field for competition in the information services market, and stimulating the development of new services beneficial to consumers. An open platform for information services will enable individuals and small organizations, as well as established information distributors, to be electronic publishers on a local, national, and international level.

B. Promote First Amendment Free Expression by Affirming the Principles of Common Carriage In a society which relies more and more on electronic communications media as its primary conduit for expression, full support for First Amendment values requires extension of the common carrier principle to all of these new media. Common carriers are companies which provide conduit services for the general public. The common carrier's duties have evolved over hundreds of years in the common law and later in statutory provisions.

The rules governing their conduct can be roughly distilled in a few basic principles. Common carriers have a duty to:

  • provide services in a non-discriminatory manner at a fair price,
  • interconnect with other carriers, and
  • provide adequate services.

The public must have access to digital data transport services, such as ISDN, which are regulated by the principles of common carriage.

Unlike arrangements found in many countries, our communications infrastructure is owned by private corporations instead of by the government. Therefore, a legislatively imposed expanded duty of common carriage on public switched telephone carriers is necessary to protect free expression effectively. A telecommunications provider under a common carrier obligation would have to carry any legal message regardless of its content whether it is voice, data, images, or sound. For example, if full common-carrier protections were in place for all of the conduit services offered by the phone company, the terminations of "controversial" 900 services such as political fundraising would not be allowed, just as the phone company is now prohibited by the Communications Act from discriminating in the provision of basic voice telephone services. As a matter of law and policy, the common carriage protections should be extended from basic voice service to cover basic data service as well.

C. Ensure Competition in Local Exchange Services The divestiture of AT&T in the early 1980s brought with it various restrictions on the kinds of markets in which the newly created local Bell companies were allowed to compete. Many consumer and industry groups are now concerned that as these judicially-imposed restrictions are lifted (know as the MFJ), the Bell companies will come to dominate the design of the emerging National Public Network, shaping it more to accommodate their business goals than the public interest. The bottleneck that Bell companies have on local exchange services critical to information providers can be minimized by unbundling these services and allowing non-Bell company providers to offer them in competition with Bell companies.

The post-divestiture pattern of providing long distance service offers us a valuable lesson: a telecommunications network can be managed effectively by separate companies -even including bitter opponents like AT&T and MCI- as long as they can connect equitably and seamlessly from the user's standpoint. Together with the open platform offered by ISDN, unbundling and expanded competition is a key to ensuring equitable access to Bell company facilities needed for information service delivery.

D. Protect Personal Privacy As the telecommunications infrastructure evolves, there are increasing threats to both communications privacy and information privacy. Strong government intervention will, at times, be necessary to protect people's constitutional right to privacy. Careful thought must also be given to the appropriate use of search warrants and wiretap authorizations in the realm of new electronic media. While new technologies may pose some difficult challenges to law enforcement, we must protect people's constitutionally-guaranteed right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures." Fundamental civil liberties tenets are at stake as long-standing constitutional doctrine is applied to new technologies.

The privacy of telephone conversations and electronic mail is already protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. However, communications in other media, such a cellular phone conversations, can be intercepted using readily available technology by private third parties without the knowledge or consent of the conversants. In addition to this, however, we believe that technological advances should be used to help people protect their own privacy and exercise more control over information about themselves. In general, citizens should be given greater control over information collected, stored, and disseminated by telephone companies and information providers. As the public outcry over Caller ID demonstrates, citizens want and deserve to have adequate notice about what information is being collected and disseminated by communications firms and must be able to exercise informed consent before information collected for one purpose can be used for any other purpose.

E. Make the Network Simple to Use One of the great virtues of today's public switched telephone network, from a user's perspective, is that it operates according to patterns and principles that are now intuitively obvious to almost everyone. As this network grows beyond just voice services, information services that become part of this network should reflect this same ease-of-use and accessibility. The development of such standards and patterns for information services is vital, not just because it helps makes the network easier to use, but also because it ensures an open platform for information providers. However, standards development will be ad hoc and even chaotic at first. Numerous standards may be tried and found inadequate by users before a mature set of standards emerges. Congress and government regulatory bodies may need to set out the ground rules for standards planning in order to ensure that all interested parties have an equal voice, and the resulting standards should be closely analyzed to make sure that they reflect public needs. But, direct government involvement in the process should be avoided if possible.

F. Preserve and Enhance Socially Equitable Access to Communications Media The principle of equitable access to basic services is an integral part of nation's public switched telephone network. From the early history of the telephone network, both government and commercial actors have taken steps to ensure that access to basic voice telephone services is affordable and accessible to all segments of society. Since the divestiture of AT&T, many of the constituent parts of the "social contract" for universal service have fallen away. Re-creation of old patterns of subsidy may no longer be possible nor necessarily desirable, but serious thought must be given to sources of funds that will guaranty that the economically disadvantaged will still have access to basic communications services.

The universal service guaranty in the Communications Act of 193411 has, until now, been interpreted to mean access to "plain old telephone service" (POTS). In the information age, we must extend this guaranty to include "plain old digital service." Extending this guaranty means ensuring that new basic digital services are affordable and ubiquitously available. Equity and the democratic imperative also demand that these services meet the needs of people with disabilities, the elderly, and other groups with special needs. Failure to do so is sure to create a society of "information haves and havenots."12


The path toward ISDN deployment requires that cooperation of numerous public and private sector organizations and political constituencies. National policy direction is needed to ensure that the necessary ubiquity and interconnection of service providers is achieved. Federal policymakers in Congress and the Federal Communications Commission will also have to consider the appropriate regulatory role for guidance of a new national resource: the information infrastructure. State public service commissions will be at the forefront of establishing pricing policy for ISDN service. The success of residential applications for ISDN will depend heavily on the PUCs' approach to ISDN pricing.

The communications industry - including the Bell Companies, the interexchange carriers, equipment manufacturers - all have cooperative roles to play in making ubiquitous ISDN a reality. The computer industry is a new, but critical player in telecommunications policy. Many of the innovative products and services to take advantage of ISDN will likely come from the computer community.

In the policy arena and in relations with industry, many public interest advocacy organizations have a vital role to play in ensuring that new technologies are implemented and regulated in a way that promotes wide-spread access to new media and preserves the fundamental guarantees of affordable, universal service.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is working to solicit comments, support, and criticism from all of these constituencies. This version of the Open Platform Proposal has been much improved with the help thoughts and reactions from many concerned parties. We welcome more comments from all who are concerned about the development of the telecommunications infrastructure.

Appendix A. ISDN Deployment Data

Regional Bell Operating Company ISDN Deployment Plans Through 1994 (Numbers in Thousands)

RBOC	        Total Lines  Lines w/ISDN Access    Percent
--------------  -----------  -------------------    -------
Ameritech          16,410       11,400                70%

Bell Atlantic      18,600       16,200                87%

BellSouth          20,000       10,500                52%

NYNEX	           16,360        5,100                31%

Pacific Telesis	   15,900       10,900                69%

Southwestern Bell  13,600        2,900                21%

US West            14,100        8,300                59%

TOTAL	          114,970       65,300                56%

Source: Bellcore Report SR-NWT-002102, ISDN Deployment Data, Issue 2, June 1992. Note: This table does not include deployment data for independent telephone companies.


1 Mass. D.P.U. 91-63-B, p. 86-7.

2 In central offices where digital switches have not yet been installed, ISDN can still be provided at lower cost than by installation of special "switch adjuncts."

3 Though the Bell companies are not required to install Signalling System Seven, it is the only practical way that they can meet new FCC requirements for 800 number portability. See Memorandum Opinion and Order on Reconsideration and Second Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, FCC Docket 86-10, Released September 4, 1991.

4 See FCC Docket 89-624 and Bellcore Special Report SR-NWT-002102, ISDN Deployment Data, Issue 2, June 1992.

5 ISDN Basic Service, Mass. D.P.U. 91-63-B, p. 34 (February 7, 1992).

6 Id. at 86.

7 L. Selwyn, A Migration Plan For Residential ISDN Deployment, April 20, 1992 (Prepared for the Communications Policy Forum and the Electronic Frontier Foundation).

8 M. Cooper, Developing the Information Age in the 1990s: A Pragmatic Consumer View, June 8, 1992. See p. 52.

9 Since the average length of a data call may be longer than the average voice call, the flat rate for ISDN would have to be adjusted upward to reflect added load on central office switching systems. However, the mere fact that data lines may remain open longer does not preclude a flat rate, non-usage-sensitive tariff.

10 The most optimistic BOC estimates on fiber deployment promise ubiquitous fiber optic cable in roughly 20 years.

11 47 USC 151, et seq.

12 Modified Final Judgment: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, 101st Cong., 1st Sess. 2 (1989) (Opening Statement of Chairman Markey). Chairman Markey set the following goal for the development of new information services: to make [information services] available swiftly to the largest number of Americans at costs which don't divide the society into information haves and have nots and in a manner which does not compromise our adherence to the long-cherished principles of diversity, competition and common carriage.

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