AT&T will begin pilot testing all-digital IP phone networks in West Delray Beach, Florida, and Carbon Hill, Alabama, as part of the U.S. carrier’s push to move away from legacy switched telephone networks (PSTN and POTS) in favor of all-IP delivery of voice, data and video.
AT&T’s announcement: Testing the Next Generation of IP Networks, states that the carrier has filed plans with the FCC to conduct IP Trials in these two wire centers and that the trials will run over the next few years. These trials will provide information about the customer experience in transitioning to the faster, more advanced network that consumers and businesses are demanding. Several sources stated that the FCC has approved these two AT&T trials (see references below), but we couldn’t find anything at fcc.gov to confirm that.
The trials will pay particular attention to the reliability of IP-based networks for accessing emergency services and connecting consumers to medical devices and home security networks.
AT&T initially will ask customers in the test areas to switch to the new technologies. In a separate phase that would require U.S. approval, the company would stop offering plain old telephone service to new customers, Hank Hultquist, AT&T vice president-federal regulatory, said today at a press briefing.
These regional experiments will help the FCC decide whether AT&T and other telecom operators (telcos) should be allowed to stop offering traditional wired phone service as customers migrate to wireless and Internet-based communications.
More than 70 percent of residential customers in AT&T’s 22-state service area have abandoned traditional wired service, the company said in a filing last year, asking the F.C.C. to end rules preventing them from dismantling legacy systems.
At its January 31st open commission meeting, the FCC endorsed and ordered Voluntary Experiments Testing Impact of Technology Transitions
According to the FCC website,
“The Proposal for Ongoing Data Initiative (Order) kickstarts the process for a diverse set of experiments and data collection initiatives that will allow the Commission and the public to evaluate how customers are affected by the historic technology transitions that are transforming our nation’s voice communications services – from a network based on time-division multiplexed (TDM) circuit-switched voice services running on copper loops to an all-Internet Protocol (IP) network using copper, co-axial cable, wireless, and fiber as physical infrastructure. Americans have come to expect secure, reliable, and innovative communications services. The purpose of these experiments is to speed market-driven technological transitions and innovations by preserving the core statutory values as codified by Congress – public safety, ubiquitous and affordable access, competition, and consumer protection – that exist today.”
Unfortunately, the transition could leave hard-to-reach customers stranded. About 4 percent of Carbon Hill’s AT&T customers won’t be getting access to the new IP-based systems at all; while AT&T says it’s committed to finding solutions for those people, it doesn’t yet have a plan.
“We will not move to Phase 2 until everyone has a solution,” said Hank Hultquist, AT&T federal regulatory vice president. “That solution may not come from us,” cautioned AT&T lawyer Christopher Heimann.
The IP transition trial may also hold unpredictable consequences for competition. The test area in West Delray Beach includes a residential complex that has an exclusive contract with Comcast, meaning AT&T can’t sell services to those customers. That won’t stop AT&T from trying to influence potential customers; it plans to set up informational tables at the complex to woo its residents.
Consumer advocate groups – such as Public Knowledge have warned that telcos should not inadvertently make service worse for some Americans in the pursuit of improving service for others. Phone companies have an incentive to accelerate the IP transition because maintaining the old copper system is expensive, particularly if it is being used by a declining share of customers.
Another critical issue is being able to make emergency phone calls during a power outage. POTS inherently provides that capability via power feeding and a phone that doesn’t plug into the AC outlet. VoIP operates over a broadband Internet connection that must be powered at all times. During a power failure, a battery backup box must be installed (and operate) on customer premises for emergency phone calls.