A few weeks ago I talked about how Verizon and AT&T are using the FCC’s IP Transition to try to get out of serving regulated services on copper landlines. Today I want to talk more about AT&T. Earlier this month they met with the FCC staff to talk about their ideas on the IP transition and they followed up that meeting with this memo.
The FCC’s IP Transition looks at replacing the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). This is the complex network that has been used to carry voice traffic and that assures that every call attempted ought to be completed. It’s now an old network, is separate from the Internet and it still mostly uses time division multiplexing technology (TDM) that is based upon using circuits that are some multiple of T1s.
The PSTN has served the country well, but pure IP technology is a lot more efficient and the FCC is working towards replacing the PSTN with something new and IP-based. The PSTN is a series of connections, called trunks that connect the central offices switches of all of the carriers in the country along with the electronics that control the network. It’s important to note that the PSTN is only the network between carriers and does not involve any connections to customers. The PSTN has always been technology agnostic in terms of supporting any kind of network such as copper, coaxial or wireless and in allowing any kind of phone or customer device as long as a carrier can locally support it.
But the PSTN network is more than just the wires connecting carriers because it includes things like the SS7 network that is used along with each call to transmit the calling number and other information. And the PSTN comes with a number of specific regulatory requirements that define the ways that carriers of different types can interconnect with each other. The FCC’s major role in this process is to rework all of the rules that define how carriers interact in the new IP world. So the FCC is being careful in dismantling the PSTN because if it’s done incorrectly there could be chaos between carriers and even problems in completing calls. Before they order a mass migration from the PSTN the FCC has authorized a number of trials to convert parts of the PSTN to IP to look in detail to make sure that everything works as hoped.
But AT&T and Verizon have hijacked the IP Transition and persist on using it as an excuse for replacing copper connections with something else. In the case of AT&T they talk about wanting to replace millions of home phones on copper with cellular. The FCC’s IP Transition never intended to require or be associated with changing technologies used by customers. The FCC must be getting very frustrated to see AT&T and Verizon continuously blame them for the changes they are trying to foist on customers. I’m actually somewhat surprised that the FCC hasn’t told them to knock it off. If I was the FCC I would be telling customers that it is not my intention to kick people off of copper. There is no technical or regulatory reason that copper networks can’t work with an IP version of the PSTN.
As you can see by this memo, AT&T intends to kick people off copper in several communities as part of what they call Technology Trials. But they don’t want to say ahead of time where those communities are because they know full-well they will be met with a lot of resistance. It’s funny that AT&T says they don’t want to divulge where their trials will be done due to fear of how competitors will act. The only competitors that benefits from AT&T’s plan will be the cable company in each town which will pick up most of the abandoned customers along with AT&T’s own cellular business. It’s incredibly unlikely that the cable companies are going to find any problem with AT&T’s plans or that releasing the information early would somehow give the cable companies some kind of edge.
AT&T has some really great writers and their memos always sound very logical and well thought out. This memo certainly seems reasonable if one didn’t understand what they are actually talking about doing. They want to knock people off copper, wait until the last possible minute to announce who that will be, and then blame it on an FCC as part of the IP Transition. AT&T will largely be forcing customers to the cable companies if they want landline voice or data.
One might not think this is all that bad of a thing. After all, the copper is getting old and perhaps it is time for it to go. But a large part of the reason rural copper is so bad is from years of neglect. One might not feel so bad about people living in small towns who end up having to go to the cable company if AT&T bails on a town. But you have to realize that small-town cable networks are sometimes in worse condition than the copper. And in most places, if AT&T shuts down the copper then the cable company becomes the only game in town. One really has to feel bad for the people who live outside rural towns, outside the reach of the cable companies. They are going to lose the only wire to their homes.