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The Decommissioning of Copper Gets Real


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All year I’ve written about how telecom carriers are in the beginning stages of decommissioning their copper wire-based networks. These networks are aging, parts aren’t available, and technicians are retiring. With currently 40 million plain old telephone services (POTS) lines in the U.S., this cash cow of the telecom industry has become much more expensive for carriers to maintain and support.
Carriers have quietly tried to eliminate POTS lines, DSL, primary rate interfaces (PRIs), and private data services delivered over this old copper cable network. Carriers have been slowly attempting to discourage continued use of these services, by increasing pricing, not renewing contracts, ending maintenance and support, and requiring customers to move to VoIP (fiber) based services.
The subtle approach changed recently when Verizon Business sent a notice to all of its channel sales organizations that said all customers with a current VZB POTS line must completely migrate to a new product no later than April 30, 2022. Customers who don’t migrate will be subject to disconnection on or after April 30, 2022. Verizon Business operates in about a dozen states. Though Verizon Business only mentions POTS lines, this announcement has big implications for everyone.
Local Exchange companies started seeing that competing in the telecom (now Internet) market was becoming difficult with the copper-based services. They petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take action. In August 2019, the FCC issued order 19-72A introducing the condition that all U.S. POTS lines get replaced with an alternative service by August 2, 2022. Section I.3 of this order states the following:
“Given the sweeping changes in the communications marketplace since the passage of the 1996 Act, including the increasing migration of consumers of all sorts and sizes away from TDM technology, copper loops, and local telephone service toward newer, any-distance voice services over next-generation wireline and wireless networks and the wide range of competitors offering facilities-based voice service alongside over-the-top Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, we find that the public interest is no longer served by maintaining these legacy regulatory obligations and their associated costs. Rather than a foothold for new entrants into the marketplace, they have become a vice, trapping incumbent LECs into preserving outdated technologies and services at the cost of a slower transition to next-generation networks and services that benefit American consumers and businesses.”
What does that mean for organizations that use POTS and copper-based services? Make a plan to eliminate them quickly.
Timelines are aggressive
Verizon’s approach to this “migration” assumes a lot of things. Primarily, services are readily available to substitute for the POTS (copper-based) lines. To provide a viable alternative service requires a whole other fiber network to be deployed to replace the copper network. To order, design, engineer, and install new services for a customer is a complicated process. To expect customers to eliminate all services by April 30, 2022, is also a huge gamble. Verizon plans to rely on 5G, LTE, and fixed-mobile wireless to fill the gaps where fiber isn’t accessible. Verizon’s strategy will require a lot of planning, design, budget dollars, and effort. A successful transition by the target date remains to be seen.
Customer notification inconsistencies
According to Verizon’s announcement, “a bill message was provided to affected customers with their September 2021 invoice and will continue in October, November, and December.” If a customer gets a paper bill, there will be some notification in their bill inserts. However, who gets a paper bill anymore? What if customers auto-pay their invoices? Will the announcement go unnoticed? Knowledgeable consumers will be proactive in assessing their situation.
More than Verizon customers will suffer
What most customers don’t understand is the telecom network is a maze of cable systems. Each carrier sells and leases services to other carriers. For example, if you buy from Windstream, the service may ride along networks owned by AT&T, Verizon, Lumen, etc. So, this decommissioning of the copper network reaches way beyond Verizon’s announcement. I’ve already heard of an instance where Verizon’s announcement will impact another carrier’s services. The reason is that other carriers lease network pathways from Verizon to provide service to their customers. This situation puts all carriers (and their customers) that lease or resell Verizon services at risk of getting caught in the middle of the copper network decommissioning as well.
What customers can do
The first thing customers should do is figure out what the impact will be on their business. I strongly recommend an assessment of all the services that the company compensates. Next, determine the need for these services, and third, make decisions on what to do moving forward.
Making a technology change can often include modifying or adding equipment, impacting critical areas using the technology, and changing the user experience. Such changes require planning, design, and possible financial investments. Key areas that may feel the most impact will be lines for life/safety (fire alarms, elevators), DSL at remote offices, legacy systems, and 911 access. Many end-users have relied on POTS lines for emergency backup in the event their phone systems were down. NextGen 911, coupled with Kari's Law, and Ray Baum's Act, are dramatically changing notification requirements, which POTS lines will not meet.
If expertise doesn’t exist in-house, engage a knowledgeable technology consultant. Consultants can often evaluate the situation quickly and make sound recommendations to meet the challenge, provide direction and formulate a plan for the future.
Editor's note: At the beginning of POTS sunsetting, many considered the FCC order 10-72A1 a mandate.  After much research and clarification, the order is in fact not a mandate to replace POTS lines.  The order relieves ILECs the burden of reselling their pots services as a discounted rate to CLECs. (August 4, 2022)

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Denise is writing on behalf of the SCTC, a premier professional organization for independent consultants. Our consultant members are leaders in the industry, able to provide best of breed professional services in a wide array of technologies. Every consultant member commits annually to a strict Code of Ethics, ensuring they work for the client benefit only and do not receive financial compensation from vendors and service providers.