AT&T to Test All-IP Phone Network in 2 U.S. Cities

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.

References:

0 thoughts on “AT&T to Test All-IP Phone Network in 2 U.S. Cities

  1. Thanks Alan for the great summary of today’s announcement from AT&T regarding their IP Transition Trials. Coincidentally, I first learned of this news, this morning, while moderating a webinar on this very topic, as one of the viewers mentioned it.

    This topic is very dynamic and its almost like the FCC is trying to build a jet while flying a bi-plane (probably not the best metaphor, but it’s late on a Friday). The take-away from today’s webinar is that there are probably more questions than answers regarding the IP Transition; at least now.

    We discussed quite a few of these questions on the webinar, such as upside and downside for a carrier to participate in the trial. We didn’t discuss this much in the webinar, but it seems like it could be a significant impact from a staff perspective to put together one of these trials; staff time that could be spent on revenue generating activities.

    Which leads to the question of how will the small guys participate in trials? The Iowa Network Services filing makes sense from this perspective, as it brings together the 150 or Iowa Telcos into one network and gives scale to test things like Interconnection.

    There are questions of measurement and how is success of the trial measure…more to follow in a later comment.

    Thanks Alan

    1. To put it mildly, at age 70 my hearing is not what it used to be. On a landline phone (or Verizon FiOS service) I can understand people clearly. On a cell phone, I have a difficult to very difficult time understanding the caller, depending on the quality of their phone. The culprit of course is the antiquated low bit rate voice coding used for cell phone networks (vs u255 PCM used in wireline networks). I’ve gotten calls from businesses that use VoIP, and some of those are as bad as cell phones; others were quite reasonable. There are a lot of people in the baby-boomer and “almost baby boomer” (me) generation out there who enjoyed heavy metal and other rock playing at levels approaching the threshold of pain. So, I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing frequency-dependent hearing loss.

      Most articles I’ve seen on VoIP talk about cost savings and the important transition to an all IP network. Your list make some good points about issues that must be addressed on service availability etc. In addition, unless they want to exclude whole generations, they need to include voice quality as part of their studies. Are you aware of anyone doing that?

      [Editor’s Note: Frank Tuhy was one of a manager at Bellcore, THE standards body for telephone service and was SVP of Technology for the pioneering triple play equipment vendor, Next Level Communications].

      1. Hi Frank,

        Thanks for the insightful comment. I share your pain, as I seem to have the same hearing challenges.

        Daniel Berninger submitted a filing to the FCC that suggests that the IP transition is an opportunity to move to HD voice.

        https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bx53_RYEFZifOWJfWkg4bEpZZDdvT1NpLUl0S2hFdERPZ0dB/edit?usp=sharing

        I do notice that the voice quality via Google Hangouts or Skype is much more enjoyable than a regular phone call.

        It’s amazing how much the quality of the voice network has dropped. Maybe more amazing is how people are OK with the lower quality (of course, mobility trumps quality).

      2. Thanks for your comment Frank. I’m NOT aware of anyone addressing voice quality in the transition to an all VoIP network. Personally, I use Google Voice all the time and the VoIP quality is quite good. When I used Skype in the past, the voice quality was terrible (in sharp contrast to Ken’s experience). However, Skype uses their own method of voice over IP and not the IETF standards.

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