US eyes phase-out of old telephone network

Nov 29, 2013 by Rob Lever
Actors dressed as Benjamin Franklin talk on pay phones on June 29, 2013 in New York City in a campaign by Virgin Mobile which enlisted 100 Benjamin Franklins to take over New York, encouraging consumers to break free for Independence Day

America's plain old telephone network is rapidly being overtaken by new technology, putting US regulators in a quandary over how to manage the final stages of transformation.

Though the timing remains unclear, the impact of change and what it means for roughly 100 million Americans who remain reliant on the dated but still-functional system of and switching stations is up for debate.

The Federal Communications Commission is working toward drafting rules in January to formalize the IP transition—switching communications systems to Internet protocol.

And while FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hails the technological advance, he has also spoken of maintaining the "set of values" that was used to ensure America's universal .

But some argue the government should step aside and allow the marketplace to keep moving toward digital standards, given that many consumers already use voice over Internet (VoIP) lines, mobile phones or various Web-based chat systems such as Skype instead of traditional telephone service.

"Almost everyone will be off this network in the next four years. It is a dead model walking," said Scott Cleland, of the research and consulting firm Precursor LLC, noting that three quarters of the transition is done.

Cleland, a former White House telecom policy adviser, said that even if people wanted to keep the old system, "they are not making the switches anymore for this. And the engineers they need to keep it alive are retiring."

As a result, Cleland said the question is not if, but when the last people will be phased out of the old system, though the transition should not be harmed by "burdensome economic regulations," such as mandates or price caps.

This is a key point for the FCC, which has long been the standard-setter for phone service and requires that it be made available and affordable to all.

Pay phones for inmates are seen on a wall at the Fremont Police Detention Facility on August 1, 2013 in Fremont, California

AT&T, which decades ago had a virtual monopoly on phone services and still operates millions of miles of phone lines, has been pressing the FCC to accelerate the transition.

"Our current infrastructure has served us well for almost a century but it no longer meets the needs of America's consumers," AT&T senior executive vice president Jim Cicconi said in a blog post.

Billions in 'legacy' costs

By ending the so-called legacy networks, AT&T and other phone companies could save vast amounts needed to maintain and upgrade those systems.

A Georgetown University study estimated that regional telephone companies spent $81 billion on legacy network costs between 2006 and 2011, compared with the $73 billion spent on modern broadband infrastructure.

Anna-Maria Kovacs, a visiting scholar at Georgetown's Center for Business and Public Policy, stressed that phone companies "must be allowed to repurpose the capital that is currently deployed to support their obsolete circuit-switched networks" during the switch to guarantee a competitive edge.

But fears remain that a transition will end a lifeline for some consumers, particularly in poor and rural areas, and that the social values embodied in phone regulations will fade away. FCC figures show about 40 percent of residential phone lines are on IP, but less than 10 percent of business lines.

"I don't want to stop technology, but we want to make sure we still have service for everyone, not just for people who live in cities who can afford it," said Harold Feld of the digital rights policy group Public Knowledge.

People charge their cell phones at a free solar-powered charging station set up by AT&T at Brooklyn Bridge Park on June 18, 2013 in New York City

A coalition of consumer groups, including the National Rural Assembly and National Hispanic Media Coalition, filed comments with the FCC underscoring "the challenges of many rural Americans that do not have access to wireless and broadband services."

They encouraged the FCC "to prevent telephone companies from discontinuing plain old telephone service, especially in areas that have no other means of communication."

Questions on stability, reliability

Feld said wireless and IP phones are useful, but don't match the reliability of copper landlines for everyday use.

Some of these problems became evident after Superstorm Sandy, when local operators declined to fix the old networks and encouraged people to move to .

"It was not a stable system," Feld said.

Officials say the transition is likely to be gradual, without a hard deadline for flipping the switch to digital.

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User comments : 10

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dogbert
2 / 5 (8) Nov 29, 2013
Unfortunate. There are still many places, even in cities, which have very poor or no digital service. If the copper lines go away, those people will have no real access to phone service.

Telephone service over the Internet is only as reliable as the Internet service. It requires a high speed connection which may be subject to frequent failure -- particularly during disasters.

Few businesses have migrated to alternate services because they know that their phone service is essential to their operations.
Doug_Huffman
2 / 5 (8) Nov 29, 2013
Wire-line telephone functioned throughout H. Hugo.

The demise of wire-line ensures an NSA connection.
Msafwan
not rated yet Nov 29, 2013
Is "legacy copper line" include ADSL broadband connection? I'm confused. Are they going to eliminate DSL service??!
ForFreeMinds
1 / 5 (10) Nov 29, 2013
Federal regulators are looking to keep their jobs, not protecting citizens from federal government employees who spy on them. After all, it was them who opposed ending the AT&T monopoly that has resulted in lower communications prices, cell phones, and other innovations.

Why not leave telecommunications services to the free market? History has shown the freer it is, the better it is for consumers. People in rural areas can pay for the costs associated with living in the boonies. No one is forcing them to live where there aren't utilities. Satellite cell phone service is available practically everywhere. And one can always use a ham radio provided they have electricity.
Shootist
1 / 5 (6) Nov 29, 2013
We will rue the day we did away with the batteries, copper lines and mechanical switches. After all the system was as nuclear war proof as could be made. Which means other natural disasters often barely interrupted POTS performance.
QuixoteJ
1 / 5 (6) Nov 29, 2013
We should NOT get rid of the POTS. It is a very good and reliable system. Sometimes it even works when the power goes out (if you have an old-style telephone, which is a good idea).

ATTN: Karl Ritter, writer of the article. Do you know the difference between a sentence and a paragraph?
Osiris1
2.5 / 5 (8) Nov 29, 2013
It is the fone monopoly that is driving this. Remember AT&T was broken up after a 40 year court fight, and now they are getting together again. The capstone will be a verizon/AT&T merger with automatic lap dog republican approval. Verizon, for example, took over one small operation after another that in order to get their lines. They ran the services into the ground and did no maintenance on their lines and systems. Now that the old systems are creaking to a halt, they want to sidestep the promise they made to the government and the people by going to a new and unreliable system. An added benefit to the monopolies will be a total lack of regulations mandating fairness and honesty and equal access to service. You ADSL and modem users will be locked out by mandatory 'fiber optic' 'upgrades' or 'transitioning'. Since our security is now for sale too, these new systems will be easy to sell out to the Chinese, Muslims or any other enemy with a buck and lie/promise.
VendicarE
not rated yet Nov 30, 2013
"Why not leave telecommunications services to the free market? History has shown the freer it is, the better it is for consumers." - ForFreeTards

Is that why America has the highest average telephone prices in the world and provides the worst internet service of first and second world nations?

You are an idiot, TardieBoy.
VendicarE
not rated yet Nov 30, 2013
"Are they going to eliminate DSL service??" - Msafwan

Yup.
indio007
1 / 5 (4) Dec 02, 2013
Doug Huffman is 100% correct. The laws concerning PSTN easedropping versus VOIP (or any other packet switched network for that matter) are different.