July 21, 2010

Can the PSTN be Shut Down?

  • Gary Audin, Delphi, Inc.
VoIP phone services keep growing. The cable companies, for example Comcast, are competing very effectively against the traditional legacy carriers for voice services. Pay phones keep disappearing. Mobile voice call volume keeps growing.

We will eventually see the PSTN retire and POTS disappear. Wireless and broadband connections proliferate while the old copper pair connections offered by the Telcos are turned off, as many as 700,000 lines per month. The trend is all downhill for the PSTN and its legacy operation. This however does not mean the PSTN will close soon or without any challenges.

This discussion was prompted by a December 21, 2009 document "Comments-NBP Public Notice #25, Comments of AT&T Inc. on the Transition from the Legacy Circuit-Switched Network to Broadband" submitted to the FCC. The term used is to "sunset" the PSTN. What AT&T means is to close down the PSTN and get the approval of the FCC. AT&T wants to retire the PSTN and POTS so they can invest in broadband deployment. Part of their request is to terminate the PSTN regulatory infrastructure and remove them as the Carrier-of-Last-Resort (COLR), in other words, eliminating existing regulation and policies. Terminating the COLR policies may be the real goal of AT&T with the broadband issue used as the driver for public consumption.

This article speculates about the challenges and provides some insight to the barriers that need to be overcome.

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Should - or will - the assumption that there's minimum of two pair of 26-gauge copper pairs of wire available ubiquitously quickly be evaporating? This is a question that's more serious than many of us may realize.

As cellular services and VoIP service compete for POTS-like service with both voice and PANS (Pretty Amazing New Stuff), the business case for the telcos to offer basic services is evaporating.

Nevertheless, when all else fails, POTS is what we turn to as a back-up.

Gary does a fantastic job (as always) in this independent report where he examines and summarizes a wide range of issues, possible outcomes, and consequences of the demise of the PSTN.

Required reading, imho.

Nice summary of issues Gary.

AT&T needs to get the debate going. However, book value (Fairpoint in NH, VT and ME and Carlyle Group's acquisition of Hawaii Telecom also from Verizon are both in Chapter 11) is no measure of the value of the asset. It seems the bigger issues are union contracts, pensions and healthcare costs. Equipment amortization expenses (and they don't consume cash like pensions or healthcare) pale in comparison. These wireline businesses were supposed to become cash-rich operations, but the cost structures weren't as flexible as the new owners hoped.

On a lifecycle note, there is plenty of evidence that legacy technologies have a nasty habit of lasting forever (or at least for lots longer than people think). Case in point, lots of people like to point out that buggy whips were a required family vehicle accoutrement 120 years ago and are nowhere to be found, right? Wrong. The outmoded technology, the buggy whip, became a speciality item in niche applications like Amish country Pennsylvania (every farm has a buggy, whip and horses), or with the Calgary Stampede's annual chuck wagon race teams. The PSTN will decline like that too. Carlyle and Fairpoint's business plan was to transform the acquired ILEC into a cash-rich business except that the recession interfered.

You rightly point out that the real goal here is to start the debate about changing the regulatory structure to suit the new realities of competition and choices. I would rather the FCC redesign or perhaps eliminate this regime in favor of simpler methods for assuring coverage in remote/rural areas. Maybe a new class of wireless tower is appropriate?

Years ago when I started working with the Internet, we had a single document (RFC 1166) that listed all of the Internet assigned numbers and their contacts (yup, I'm in there). That was a time when we thought the Internet would never grow big enough to run out of IP addresses. So now, we're looking at the bottom of the IPV4 address pool and the beginning of a new, bottomless (really?) pit of IPV6 addresses.

What does that have to do with the demise of the PSTN? Same thing – great concepts never really die, they just keep morphing until they become unrecognizable in their new incarnation. After working with carrier and enterprise VoIP for nearly 10 years at Cisco (and being one of those zealots advocating the death of the PSTN), I can honestly say I was wrong. The PSTN isn't going to "die", but it sure won't look like it does today in another decade. But then come to think about it, show me any 10 year interval where either the Internet or the PSTN looked the same. Hasn't happened, isn't going to happen.

I really like Gary's look at the inflection point we're about to approach. I like it so much in fact, I think I'm going to print it out and put it in my history box at home; right next to my original copy of the Zerox Ethernet spec, MAP/TOP specs, 1200 baud modem, 1st generation Selsius IP phone, ... you get the picture.

I'm curious as to the community's thoughts on whether the alternative communications methods are sufficiently "hardened."

I'm as eager as the next person (in fact probably much more eager) to be doing packet voice and to use my cellular communications. In fact, I absolutely love my "Droid" and am amazed by the capabilities for GPS tracking.

Nevertheless, when all else - including the power - fails, having that pair of wires from POTS with power coming from the central office seems like a great safety net.

We have a pretty good feeling at this point for the level of reliability that you can get with Internet-based voice. Not bad, and MUCH better than about 5 years ago.

But what are your feeling about the load-carrying capacity and failover capabilities of the cellular nets?

I just spent a day in Germany on a business trip. Even ISDN, one of those colossal telco mistakes, is still alive and kicking. My hotel was willing to give me an ISDN BRI connection if I could find an adaptor. That tells me that PSTN with its success of 100+ years will not die for a long time.

I know that this is a 'technical' forum, but there is an obvious point that we 'geeks' sometimes overlook. I'll explain

PSTN shut down? It's not going to happen, unless the 'politics' in our country change drastically in the next few years.

The party in power is so entwined with labor unions, that if necessary they will do a 'bailout' of the PSTN.

It fits with their plans for 'change'. Bail out companies with a large number of union members, expand the number of Americans 'dependent' upon them, keep the votes coming their way.

As someone who has been on the Internet since 1986, I believe in early adoption and the advancement of technology, but those early experiences have tempered my enthusiasm to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Do I believe that we will all someday be talking on VoiP, or one of its logical successors? Absolutely, but today is not that day, and likely, neither is tomorrow!

VoiP is excellent technology for an enterprise customer who has the wherewithal to buy sufficient bandwidth and the expertise to administer it. However, individual or small business users with limited bandwidth, will find themselves hamstrung by a VoiP only solution. Unless and until a solution can be found to that issue, these customers would be foolhardy to give up their PSTN (POTS) service.

As for cellular as a substitute, some of us still remember the "Great Blackout" of 2002 in the Mid Atlantic / Midwest. A lightning strike to a power substation in Ohio took out the power grid in about 17 states. During that outage, which lasted nearly 48 hours, cellular service here in Metro Detroit was all but non-existent. Towers that were still in service were so overwhelmed that calls couldn't get through anyway. Internet was down because the modem is AC powered! As mentioned by several other contributors, the only thing that worked was POTS. Yes, there are solutions to the issues that I've raised, but unless and until they are addressed, POTS is a necessary, if technologically backward, part of our communications network. Don't turn it down until the alternative is proven to be at least equally reliable.

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