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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