The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will let telephone companies led by AT&T Inc. conduct trials of digital services, in a step toward loosening rules written for copper-wire networks in the fast-fiber age.

And the head of AT&T operations in North Carolina praised the decision, which was announced Thursday.

“It is exciting to see today’s decision by the FCC, for it reflects how North Carolina policymakers have been working for years to encourage private investment in advanced technology by continually updating State public policy, ensuring that statutes and regulations are appropriate for the constantly-evolving communications marketplace,” said North Carolina AT&T President Venessa Harrison.

“Consumers, and businesses, are increasingly embracing newer technologies and the opportunities and innovations which they deliver. We look forward to continuing to invest aggressively in North Carolina, deploying state-of-the-art networks and creating jobs. We also look forward to continuing to work with State and local leaders to help ensure that North Carolinians enjoy the full benefits that an all-IP network can deliver for economic growth, innovation and public safety.”

AT&T embraced an all Internet Protocol-based network across the southeast several years ago, and from that commitment came the eventual local launch of the national U-Verse TV system.

Harrison is a bid advocate for broadband and is actively supporting initiatives to broaden AT&T’s technology improvements.

FCC Embraces Experimentation

“We today invite service providers to propose voluntary experiments” to deliver service in areas exclusively using Internet-style technology, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said as the agency voted 5-0 to clear the way for carriers to conduct regional experiments replacing their traditional phone lines.

AT&T, the largest U.S. phone company, in 2012 asked the commission to approve the trial runs. Some requirements to provide connections to smaller companies should be eliminated after switching to a new system, leaving minimal federal regulation, AT&T said in an FCC filing. It said the transition “raises a number of novel and likely contentious issues.”

Last year Verizon Communications Inc. bowed to consumer complaints on New York’s Fire Island over its replacement of storm-damaged copper phone lines with wireless service, and decided to rebuild with fiber-optic circuits instead.

Verizon, the second-largest U.S. phone company, had sought to establish that it could replace its copper phone lines with wireless service in places where it’s more expensive to install the fiber-optic lines.

Technology transitions are happening, Wheeler said in a December blog post.

“These experiments are therefore designed to identify in advance issues that must be resolved -– and their solutions -– so that consumers can continue to rely on the networks that connect them,” Wheeler said in the post.

Leverage More Reforms, Open Technology Institute Says

Sarah Morris, Senior Policy Counsel for the Open Technology Institute at New America in Washington D.C., said the lobbying group supports the FCC decision. However, she also said other changes are needed.

“We are encouraged to see that the Commission recognizes the importance of a values-driven approach to the IP Transition. The Commission emphasized its commitment to universal service, consumer protection, competition and public safety,” Morris said. “It was reassuring to hear that the FCC will not simply conduct experiments on the technical feasibility of these technological transitions, but will commit to careful review of these underlying principles of communications policy – we look forward to seeing how the Commission will implement these values into actual policy.”

More work remains to be done, however, according to Morris.

“In addition to ensuring that communications networks remain reliable, particularly in times of emergencies and natural disasters, the FCC must leverage this transition to implement policy reforms that increase availability of advanced communications services for all areas of the country, and that ensure that all users have access to those communications services at affordable rates,” she said. “Consumers should be better off as a result of this transition – they should benefit from an increase in competition rather a decrease, and they should continue to benefit from all of the additional protections that exist where competition fails.”