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The Battle to Keep Copper

The PSTN as we have known it is on its way out. That means that the copper wire plant will likely slowly disappear. We know that. What comes next may not be all that attractive (see related post, "The Enterprise Still Needs Landline Phones").

Customers already have IP services. Eliminating the copper connections means that DSL will probably disappear, and those who want to keep their copper connections will be forced to an IP connection over cable, fiber, or wireless networks. However, copper can still be used if the carrier wants to support it. Frontier Communications, for example, recently announced residential DSL service over copper that delivers bandwidth of 100Mbps.

State of the PSTN
Carriers are rapidly replacing traditional Class 4 trunk switches and Class 5 switches, which serve customers, with IP versions called softswitches. Softswitches take up less space (carriers are selling off real estate), require less power and cooling, can be remotely maintained, and offer more services than their TDM counterparts. Softswitches can connect to copper wire through gateways, thereby enabling continued use of legacy copper cabling should carriers so choose.

The copper plant is aging, which means an increased need for maintenance. But the technicians who support TDM and copper technologies are retiring, and new technicians don't want to learn old technologies for fear that they will be working their way out of their jobs as the PSTN retires. Supporting legacy technologies becomes more expensive with fewer support personnel.

Benefits for the Carriers
The carriers' goal, therefore, is to transfer customers from TDM to VoIP connections so they can retire the legacy installations. They want to connect to customers so they can upsell services and increase their revenues and profits. They do not want to repair damaged connections, as Verizon tried to do after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York infrastructure. Rather, they want to replace them with wireless or cable/fiber connections for which they can ask higher prices than they could for the TDM services they'd be replacing. This is good business, but not always what customers expect. Lobbying at the federal and state utility commissions bears this out.

Power, Me, and 911
I have backup power for my laptop and a FiOS router/switch for services delivery over a fiber connection. If I lose power, I can keep working offline, but I have learned that my Internet access and TV will not work. The VoIP phone line will work for emergencies, but only for eight hours. If I need to place a 911 call after that period, I can use my cell phone. However, that has limited battery life -- during one seven-and-a-half-day outage, I went out to eat a lot so I could charge my cell phone at the restaurant.

My wireline phone, with its legacy copper connection, keeps working. Thinking about a future in which that's not an option, I am concerned about 911 support during power outages. I would like the VoIP service to have the same power life I have on my wireline phone. This is one of many instances in which I think the result of the transition to IP will be less capable than the TDM connection I now have. In essence, I will have to pay for my cell service to back up my VoIP connection.

Will It be Done to Us or for Us?
The media is bound to extol the virtues of the IP transaction. What I will be looking for is what the hype ignores. Here are some potential scenarios that the consumer and business may encounter:

Consumers and businesses will have to contend with the IP transition. The carriers should be forced to notify consumers/businesses of the transitions in their areas at least six months in advance to give them time to budget and acquire the right IP connection devices.

The carriers could also recommend or possibly offer the devices. They've been planning the IP transition for years, so they know where and when they will be implementing the IP connections.

For related posts I've written on the IP transition of the PSTN, see: