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Cutting Copper? You Better Have a Plan


A cut copper wire
Image: Pituk -
As many telco carriers are decommissioning their copper cable infrastructure, end users are forced to seek alternative solutions for these services. Network managers who have a solid transition plan can find services to fit their business needs.
For a bit of background, legacy telco carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, and Windstream all have aging copper cable infrastructures. Historically, copper-based services have been the workhorse and the cash cow of carrier operations for decades. These networks have become more difficult to support and repair due to parts scarcity and technicians retiring. Carriers are finding it easier to build new, high-speed fiber networks, investing millions of dollars rolling them out, and sunsetting older services along the way.
This leaves end users with difficult decisions on what to do in response. Telco carriers don’t seem to have a unified approach to eliminating these services; announcements have impacted specific regions as fiber networks rollout. One of my sources at AT&T has said that they have been actively engaging clients with legacy services and not allowing contract renewals in favor of newer fiber-based service agreements.
Decommissioning Challenges
Copper-based services that are being retired include legacy services such as PRIs, trunks, DIA (dedicated internet access), and DSL. AT&T published a list internally of all the products that will be sunset in late 2020. It has been up to account teams to notify customers as they see fit. Some account managers have been proactive, and others not. This leaves end users holding the bag with the short end-of-service notices and the need to act quickly.
Whether customers are using an end-of-life service or not, the truth is that carriers will be forcing end users to make decisions that impact their networks sooner than later. The key to success is responding with a solid plan for moving forward. Having a good understanding of what services are being used, what the actual user needs are, and a plan to migrate will be key to a successful transition. Many service options are out there; you just need to find the best fit for your organization. Solutions such as broadband, wireless data, SIP trunks, and other IP services can all be great options.
Pick Your Solution: Broadband, Wireless, and More
Copper services mainly relate to voice over TDM (digital communications). Older, legacy PBXs are digital. Low-bandwidth data services are available that run over the copper network such as DSL, 56kbps, ISDN-BRI, and even 9600 baud. I have seen recent telco invoices with all these services on them, and after verification, all are still in use across the clients' networks. The services have been very stable and work well with for right applications. So, knowing that the end is near for these services, what can end-users do to move away from copper networks?
The good news is fiber networks provide faster services, are more efficient, and less expensive in many cases. Since fiber services have been introduced, I have seen the cost of fiber products significantly decline year over year. Fiber offers greater bandwidth which equips end users with speeds that will support most advanced applications.
Many legacy PBXs can be retrofitted to support SIP trunks. If a complex PBX replacement isn't currently in the budget, most carriers offer SIP trunks that support a PRI, analog, or SIP handoff. Customers can get the benefit of fiber services without having to forklift their telephony equipment. Recently, a client moved from a copper-based PRI to a fiber SIP service with a PRI handoff, which allowed them to take advantage of the fiber infrastructure without replacing any legacy equipment.
Another stable solution is fixed mobile wireless. This is where a carrier (often niche, regional providers) mounts a radio or microwave antenna on the customer building and points it to one of the carrier locations, creating a point-to-point connection. The carrier location is fiber equipped and connected to the carrier's data center. Many advantages to this solution exist: It is a dedicated connection, has low latency, and can reach places that geographically may be difficult by other methods.
Mobile broadband is gaining popularity. Essentially, this is the ability to move data traffic over the cellular network. The cellular carrier will provide a cellular router and a data plan. The cellular router can be connected to the customer's local area network like a regular data circuit. The advantages are that the connection is portable, capacity is shared, and uses the cellular network for transport. Pricing is typically consumption-based vs. a fixed monthly cost. Unlike fixed circuits, if the data thresholds are exceeded, there can be additional costs if the user does not monitor data consumption. Also, fixed-mobile wireless and mobile broadband are usually quick and easy to deploy. Deployment can take days vs. standard carrier installation intervals of weeks.
What Next?
Savvy network managers need to identify what copper-based services they have in their infrastructure. This is the first step in the move to eliminating these antiquated solutions. Next, validate that these services are necessary for the IT environment. Many times, these older services have already been replaced, and the billing may continue. Review the applications that used the copper-based services. If the applications are still required, is there a better fiber-based solution that can be implemented? Communicate with your telco carrier teams for assistance in finding these end-of-life situations. Create a migration plan to meet the challenges of the sunsetting of services. Lastly, since sooner or later this infrastructure will fail, you should dedicate some resources to getting away from all copper services.
Engaging the assistance of an experienced technology consultant may be the key to moving these initiatives forward.

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