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The Graceful and Ungraceful Evolution Away from POTS
As much as I hate to admit it, and despite the fact that I rely on and love my low-tech, old time hardwired copper lines (yes, I still have two in my house), POTS lines are going the way of the dodo bird. Although, contrary to what the fearmongers would have you believe, this transition is not happening all at once, but slow and often sloth-like pace. Is it likely that copper will totally disappear? No. But as technology evolves and existing infrastructure becomes difficult and costly to maintain, POTS offerings will be harder to come by and costlier to repair, forcing many to abandon it, despite its inherent strengths of power failure operation and accuracy of location information.
While most enterprise communications people plan their systems’ evolution long before the migration takes place, often it’s the small things — the little-used devices — that slip through the cracks. As existing technology is slowly replaced, be sure to keep an eye out for the devices that need to be considered for replacement, not just for convenience, but for public safety purposes and/or to meet other legal mandates as well. For example, communication professionals must remember elevator phones (federal law proscribes certain inflexible parameters that must be followed) and phones that are located in publicly-accessible places like parks, libraries, and other municipal gathering points.
What is important to consider is the underlying technology. While the FCC and other governmental entities with public safety responsibilities do not mandate the underlying technology that must be used to replace POTS, communication professionals must consider the reliability of such technology across a range of climate conditions. For example, will a phone at a park function properly when the air temp falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit?
The magic question is: Will there be a signal sufficiently and consistently (note the emphasis) strong to provide accurate location information? This magic question pertains primarily to underlying cellular service, which might be ideal in a public park, but potentially horrible in an elevator inside a concrete and steel skyscraper. According to Steve Leaden, President of Leaden Associates, Inc., “Cellular (5G) is the most popular replacement for POTS. While some are single drops, some are ‘POTS in a box’ (up to four POTS lines). From my experience, 5G delivery appears to be de-facto POTS alternative, and in many cases is more reliable with the addition of cellular amplifiers than other options. In fact, some vendors offer 5G and if that doesn’t work in a specific area, they will offer a cable modem in lieu of POTS.”
One other key point to consider.: Despite sexy ads to the contrary, 5G service is simply not available in many parts of the country. Whatever the underlying technology, any device designed for public safety has to work. A weak and/or inconsistent signal is truly not only bad business, but a matter of life and death.
When replacing reliable POTS lines, regularly scheduled and random testing must occur to make sure that such devices, including elevator phones, must always be in working order. While IP-enabled devices can be monitored and managed remotely, cellular devices do not offer the same level of reliability, particularly when environmental factors, including but not limited to building construction and outdoor weather, are considered. Testing is an essential part of the process.
While the law is silent on underlying technology, state and federal laws and regulations, including Kari’s Law and RAY BAUM’S Act will apply to the extent that these devices function “behind” a phone system. With IP-enabled phones or cellular devices, the issue of continuous power supply must be addressed. Further, with cellular devices, the responsible authority needs to know that the service is working (decent signal) to support the appropriate device as intended. As has been mentioned previously, putting a cellular-driven stand-alone device in a parking garage would likely be problematic because of the consistency and reliability of signal quality from that device. With IP-enabled devices, the network has the ability to “ping” the device to verify its presence and ability to transmit and receive not only content, but sufficiently precise location information.
One final thought: Aside from routine and systematic testing, the other question to be asked before making a technology move is the nature of the obligations imposed by the fire marshal. These obligations can apply to devices located both indoors and out. The goal is always to think through what you want your answers to be to the questions posed to a jury: Did the enterprise behave in a reasonable matter given technology and safety concerns? Was the fire marshal satisfied with the technology solution? Has the system been tested with sufficient frequency?
The goal of any and all legislation and regulation regarding location information is to enable first responders to get to people in need as quickly as possible. The underlying technology doesn’t matter so long as it works as needed when needed.