Cellphone tower in florida

Cities to test IP-only telephony

AT&T is beginning a plan to shut down old copper phone networks and replace them with new Internet-Protocol based telephony systems, such as fiber-based broadband and high-speed wireless. The company is proposing to begin its “national technology trial” in two locations: Carbon Hill, Ala. and West Delray Beach, Fla. 

But while the plan is supported by federal regulators, it has drawn fire from those who worry it leaves high and dry individual end users who rely on legacy copper networks, especially in rural areas, for both plain telephone service and copper-based Internet access services. Copper-based lines are also used for burglar alarms, emergencies and fire alarm systems.

The carrier has invested more than $2.75 billion in wireless and wired networks in Florida in the last two years, including upgrades to cell sites, LTE mobile broadband expansion to 20 communities and wired IP broadband to 25,000 locations in Florida.

The Florida trial will “ensure that Florida customers, and ultimately consumers and businesses across the country, can benefit from the latest communications technologies,” AT&T said.

The announcement of the trial followed a January decision by  the Federal Communications Commission to allow telecom carriers to run trials to replace traditional, copper-based telephone systems with IP-based networks. “We cannot continue to require service providers to invest in both old networks and new networks forever,” said Commissioner Ajit Pai, in commenting on the decision.

The FCC will monitor the trials, which will focus on the impact of the new systems on customers  and emergency services, as well as potential service interruptions, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

However, not everyone believes advanced IP telephony is an adequate substitute for copper landlines, particularly in rural areas, which are underserved by broadband. An August 2012 broadband access report by the FCC, its most recent report on the issue, noted that gaps remain in the nation’s broadband network, with approximately 19 million Americans – 6 percent of the population – still lacking access to the technology.

And while the administration’s 2009 National Broadband Plan was intended to accelerate broadband deployment in underserved and rural areas, so far its reach has exceeded its grasp.  “In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population —14.5 million people—lack access to this service,” noted the report. “In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access. Even in areas where broadband is available, approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe,” the 2012 FCC report stated.

Part of the reason for the access gap is cost, both to providers and consumers. It is more expensive per capita for providers to build out broadband networks to rural areas, costs that are eventually passed on to end users.  While AT&T would like to dump its copper network by 2020, it may lose these users, who link to the Internet via copper-based DSL services, critics of the plan note.

“Obscured [in the plan] is the fact that much of AT&T's existing services still run over copper networks, and that by eliminating regulations governing copper, you're effectively allowing AT&T to leave millions of DSL [users] high and dry,” according to an October 2013 DSL Reports commentary.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


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