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What's lost when phone service goes digital

AT&T is making a big investment in its digital network -- and signaling its original, and extremely reliable, copper-wire system is on the way out.

AT&T has new plans to spend $14 billion on its telecom infrastructure -- faster, fatter pipes to connect our calls and video.

The pipes are different from the past. Calls from home travel more over fiber-optic, Internet protocol (IP) and wireless connections than old-school copper lines.

"We are definitely moving away from a copper world," says telecom consultant Roger Entner at Recon Analytics. "Copper is very limited, compared with what you can do with fiber or with the most advanced wireless technologies today."

But there's a trade off.

"Are we going to give up some of the reliability of a copper network?" Entner asks. "Quite possibly."

Reliable, universal service was part of the American social contract when the phone system was first built out. That's important to poor, rural users who may just have a phone line, says consumer advocate Harold Feld at Public Knowledge.

He says New Yorkers learned about copper's reliability in Hurricane Sandy.

"People who had cable VOIP or FIOS were trying to find payphones," Feld says, "because that old copper technology held up, where the new networks did not hold up nearly as well."

Feld also wonders how affordable the new telecom world will be. He says guarantees that applied to old copper lines may not apply to the newer technology.

"Because there's no rules for these new networks," Feld says, "they can decide, 'well we're happy to sell you our phone service as part of our cable service and data service, but we are not interested in selling you just a phone service for $25 a month.'"

Feld says the question is, as we move into a post-copper world, whether to bring with us the old copper safety net.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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Desimone's experience during Sandy was the exact opposite of my own. I was the only one of 20 residents on my floor who had working telephones -- on my two separate POTS lines. My cell service from ATT was completely out for the first two days and then was only available for a couple hours at night for the next two days.
What POTS has to offer is an electricity source that comes from the central exchange to operate my phones. This cannot be available over fiber or wireless.

If all you want is a POTS (plain old telephone service) line to talk on then copper just copper will work. When you add any kind of DSL the further away from the DSLAM equipment you get the more problems you have. When you lose electricity at the customer end you lose service. Many customers think they are on an all copper pair but there is a good chance they are some system that involves electronics half way to the house. When these systems lose power they shut down. The systems have battery or generators to keep them running when commercial power fails. The problem is when you have flooding of several feet the systems are under water. Many of the newest systems are in low profile waist high cabinets because the residents complain when the companies use 6ft tall cabinets.

Fiber is is the best bet but again if the customer does not provide for power backup then it dies. Even if a customer had bought a generator the customers near the water may have lost the generator in the flood if it was not on the second floor. When all is said and done the cable and telcos can deal with just power failures but several feet of water is an entirely different ball game.

I work with a woman who lives in the boonies where she cannot get cable service because it is not offered. Apparently a neighbor had gotten an upgraded phone line for DSL years ago, but it was going to cost her an amount in the Thousands of Dollars to get that type of service. She relies on a 90 kbps dial-up modem which because the phone line quality is so horrible connects at 24.4 kbps when she works from home. For me that is like living in the stone ages but she is hardly alone in her isolation and they are increasingly being left behind.

I'm disappointed in AT&T, but I understand them. It is not cost effective to be spread out. And my sense is, if having a decent internet or phone connection was important to you... you'd move to civilization, right? But I can't help but think that those isolated people own property that is continually losing value due to its increased relative isolation.

Imagine downloading the latest Acrobat Reader which was over 20 Megs down on a 24.4 kbps connection?

Very disappointing story. Entner and Feld live in a different world than I do--a world that began to fade in the 1980s. "Copper" does not give you reliability. The Bell System gave us reliability when they designed a network to provide universal, life-line services to their (captive) customer base. They did that in a time when the technology of the day was copper, but what makes the service available is the operations behind it. Today's technology, including fiber, is fully capable of the same level of availability but the network operators no longer have the imperative to design and operate highly available networks for consumers.

And no, Mr. Fled, the old copper technology did not hold up in Hurricane Sandy, at least not in my kitchen. My kitchen wall phone is a Bell System 554, manufactured the month and year I was born. I have Verizon analog phone service on that line for about $14/month. When the lights went out, I lost dial tone. I was stunned! Verizon should have backup power; they should be providing 48VDC over copper to keep my phone to life. Nothing! Fortunately my cellphone worked fine while the batteries held out. Once power came back, my Comcast cable modem recovered nicely; the 554 remained dead. I had no "lifeline" service from Verizon for a full day beyond when power returned to the neighborhood.

I don't miss the Bell System and I don't want it back. I do ask that those advising the media tell the proper story rather than propagating the misguided notion that the changes we see are tied to some simple technology choices. Copper is a metaphor here, nothing more. Your listeners deserve the real story, not the buzzwords and soundbites.

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