One way or another, the old copper-based telephone networks will be going away. Critics say it's already happening, as telephone carriers fail to maintain the networks and fail to adequately repair damage caused by storms and accidents.
Consumers have made it pretty clear they're ready to switch to digital networks, both Internet-based services like Skype and Vonage and the wireless networks that power their smartphones.
Now the Federal Communications Commission is weighing in. It's expected to vote today to authorize trials around the country in which phone companies would switch customers to new Internet-based networks to gather data on what, if any, problems occur.
Rural areas and small businesses are the primary concerns at the moment. Rural areas tend to lack the higher-speed broadband services available in large metropolitan areas and many consumers have found that Skype and similar services just don't work very well for them.
Likewise, small businesses have a lot of equipment hooked up to the copper network -- things like credit card readers, burglar and fire alarms and automated phone trees. Many of these systems are made to work on analog systems and may have to be replaced or upgraded if the telephone network switches to a digital architecture.
Many consumers are already on digital systems without realizing. Most of the telephone services offered by cable systems are digital, as are FiOS and AT&T's Uverse.
The plan being considered today would allow phone companies to convert the phones of volunteers in specified service areas to digital. New customers in the test areas would be required to go digital from the start.
The question here is not so much technical as regulatory. Everyone knows digital technology works; you're reading this, aren't you? But POTS -- the term old-line telephone types use to refer to Plain Old Telephone Service -- has for the better part of a century been heavily regulated to promote the basic concepts of:
- universal service,
- rate equity, and
- service reliability.
Rand Paul and other Libertarians may not like this, but telephone and electricity service, along with natural gas in some areas, have long been considered "utilities." Companies were allowed to have a monopoly in a region in exchange for agreeing to provide service everyone in their region, to charge everyone the same amount for the same grade of service and to maintain a reasonable reliability standard.
The rapid growth of the Internet and wireless service has broken the regulated monopoly model but the FCC wants to be sure that a conversion to a digital network doesn't leave anyone behind.
This is not a theoretical argument if you are a rancher living 20 miles from your nearest neighbor. Currently, the phone company has to run a line to your house and provide you with service for the same price as someone who lives across the street from the telephone company office in the nearest town.
FCC officials quoted over the last few days have said that the commission will not be rushing into a mass conversion and insist the tests being contemplated today are just the beginning of the process.
The Wichita lineman may still be on the line, but it might be time for him to have a backup plan.