Retirement of the Copper Wireline Leaves Some Vulnerable Featured

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Retirement of the Copper Wireline Leaves Some Vulnerable Image Credit: Rawpixel.com/Bigstockphoto.com

It’s no wonder that with the availability of new communications technology, telco providers are retiring copper wirelines. This new technology is rendering the 100-year-old copper landline technology - once so integral to our communications infrastructure - obsolete, and thus leading many telco providers to move away from landline services altogether.

But are new telco services addressing the reliability landline features once provided?  It helps to take a closer look at the state of the landline infrastructure in the United States, as well as how voice over IP (VoIP) is providing smarter and more cost-effective connectivity solutions compared to traditional home phone offerings.

The decline of landlines

Today’s landline technology isn't significantly different from the early copper telephone lines implemented by Bell Telephone Company back in 1877.

However, a change in telecom financial regulations in the 1990s allowed phone companies to spend less on maintaining telephone infrastructure. This regulatory spending change was swiftly followed by new technology such as high-speed internet connections, mobile phone networks, and fiber networks.

According to the latest data, 53 percent of the U.S. population no longer has landline phones. Households that have both landlines and wireless phone service total 38 percent, and only six percent of households have only landline phone service.

This combined situation of decreasing demand for landline service and a deteriorating network has prompted companies such as AT&T to push for legislation to end landline phone service altogether. In a 2013 letter to shareholders, AT&T announced its efforts to phase out landline phone service. At that point, it was estimated that the total expenditure by phone companies to maintain lines was $13.5 billion per year.

Landline deregulation has been successful. In 2017, Illinois legislators voted to allow AT&T to disconnect the state's 1.2 million landline customers. Illinois isn’t the only place where this has occurred. Legislators in at least 19 other states have voted to allow AT&T to move away from landline services and shift investments into wireless and internet-based phone networks.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, AT&T has consistently been one of the country’s top lobbyists in recent years, spending $15.8 million on utility regulation issues in 2018.

Consumer communication needs are in jeopardy

It’s easy to assume that landline service problems only occur in remote rural areas, but this isn’t true.

In a Brooklyn neighborhood, residents reported landline issues that Verizon said would take three to six months to repair. In some cases, residents were told not to expect any repairs at all, and to wait for when their buildings were switched to Fios.

Some state agencies are holding telephone companies to task to ensure that landline maintenance complies with current laws. Recently, a 500+ page document prepared by Minnesota’s Department of Commerce detailed an investigation of more than 1,000 customer complaints about telephone provider Frontier Communications and its alleged violation of at least 35 separate laws.

“The findings of this investigation detail an extraordinary situation, where customers have suffered with outages of months, or more, when the law requires telephone utilities to make all reasonable efforts to prevent interruptions of service,” said the report. “Frontier customers with these outages include those with family members with urgent medical needs, such as pacemakers monitored by their medical teams via the customer’s landline.”

According to public documents, similar filings against Verizon have occurred in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

VoIP phone service is on the rise

Cellular phone service, of course, offers the connectivity and mobility that’s expected today. However, cellular phone service isn't the only option.

Amidst the deteriorating infrastructure of traditional phone lines, Voice over IP (VoIP) internet-based telephone service has risen steadily. According to industry analysis, consumers are switching to VoIP phone service because it saves money, integrates with IoT devices, and offers remote access to home phone lines.

Consumer adoption is expected to rise rapidly, and North America is projected to see a 124 percent growth rate for VoIP in the next five years. In particular, there’s interest in the mobile VoIP market, which relies upon a calling app to provide internet-based phone service from a mobile device. According to Grand View Research, the global mobile VoIP market is expected to reach $146 billion by 2024.

For consumers, the advantages of VoIP are two-fold: more features at a lower cost. Those making international calls also see significant savings, benefiting from access to low-cost international rates and unlimited international calling plans.

Robocalls targeting landline numbers

Especially for landline users, robocalls are a widespread problem. Every second, about 1,300 robocalls are made. According to data collected by YouMail, a call-blocking service, last September alone there were about 1.76 billion illegal spam calls in the United States. That’s 21.12 billion per year, or about 167 per U.S. household, assuming an equal distribution.

As the scammers use technology to wage their spam campaigns, consumers can use telephone technology to fight back.

To combat this, VoIP subscribers gain access to an array of advanced telephone tools, including five categories of call blocking technology to fight the onslaught of unwanted calls. Call-blocking options include known spammers, suspected spammers, anonymous callers where the phone number is hidden, custom blocking, and contacts-only white listing.

Emergency response and senior citizens

Older Americans continue to be hesitant to let go of traditional wired home phones. Only 24 percent of those aged 65 and older have cut the cord on their landline, a much lower rate than 53 percent of all Americans. Yet, the deteriorating landline infrastructure can put seniors at risk.

A recent report on 911 calling trends found that 63 percent of people were unaware of the geolocation limitations of making a 911 call from a cell phone, the common alternative to a home phone service. For example, in Washington D.C, the success rate of 911 dispatchers determining a location from a cell phone is only ten percent, and in Texas, it’s only 33 percent.

Now, VoIP technology allows consumers using either their home phone or the free VoIP calling app to have access to advanced 911 service. This means that emergency calls are automatically routed to the home’s local dispatcher, and the home address will be automatically relayed, saving valuable time when you need it the most.

While new technology and legislation makes it possible for telco providers to move away from copper phone lines, the assumption that consumers can rely solely on cell phones leave some vulnerable. Before copper-wire landlines are completely retired, it’s important that telco providers, along with local and state governments, communicate the limitations of cell phones and share enough information about VoIP phone services on the market.

Thad White is the Vice President of Residential Product Management at Ooma, responsible for driving great user experiences across Ooma’s portfolio of hardware devices, mobile apps, and services. Thad has more than 20 years of experience building and managing consumer tech products at leading tech companies including Yahoo!, BlackBerry, and 3jam (acquired by Skype). He has worked on messaging and communications products used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

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