The long-awaited move to convert the U.S. telephone system to an Internet-based network appears to be gaining steam as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC (News - Alert)) will take up the matter at the agency’s January meeting.
It’s debatable when the process to begin upgrading started, but one milestone was reached a year ago when the FCC chairman at the time, Julius Genachowski (News - Alert), announced the formation of the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force. Its purpose was to begin the process for upgrading from legacy circuit-switched telephone networks.
In one sense, the transition began years ago, when consumers switched from landlines to mobile and VoIP for their primary method of communication. For years, providers like AT&T (News - Alert) have been upgrading telephone infrastructure to an IP-based system, but regulations have prevented them from abandoning the old system.
The FCC’s desire to protect subscribers in remote areas from losing service after a wholesale upgrade meant that providers have had to pay for costly maintenance on legacy networks. According to a Georgetown University study, from 2006 to 2011, telephone companies spent more on maintenance of circuit-switched networks ($81 billion) than on building new IP-based networks ($73 billion).
These trends cannot continue if the U.S. is to be competitive in a global economy. According to one expert, the legacy phone system is beyond obsolete and in its dying stages: “They are not making the switches anymore for this. And the engineers they need to keep it alive are retiring,” said Scott Cleland (News - Alert), a former technology adviser to the White House.
Several steps need to be taken to move the transition the nation to modern telephone service that do not shut out those who cannot easily get IP-based phone service.
The FCC needs to eliminate an outdated regulatory structure that was based on monolithic providers of POTS. These policies prevented much-needed upgrades from happening years ago.
For those who live in areas where it is expensive or impractical to install cable and other related infrastructure, government subsidies can offset the costs and mobile broadband can overcome physical limitations that some areas have when it comes to installing wiring.
New installations need to be tested thoroughly as old systems are replaced. The obsolescence of POTS means that there is no turning back. The federal government also needs to re-establish confidence in its ability to implement technology, given the recent problems with the healthcare.gov website.
This nationwide upgrade can be done properly. The switch to digital television in 2009 in the U.S. provided better quality images and was done in a way that allowed nearly all owners of legacy CRT TV sets to continue to get broadcasts. It’s going to take a problem-solving approach and getting past objections that cling to outdated technology. It won’t be a cakewalk, but it is possible.
Edited by Alisen Downey