POTS sunset on the horizon?

FCC issues public notice seeking ways to phase out 'relics of a by-gone era'
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Thursday, January 7, 2010

WASHINGTON--Plain-old telephone service--the mainspring of traditional burg and fire alarm signal transmission--could be coming to a mandatory end. The Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 1 issued a public notice seeking comment on a National Broadband Plan that could include a mandatory switch from a public switched telephone network to IP, similar to the FCC-enforced switch from analog to digital broadcast television that occurred in early 2009.

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FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said while nothing had been decided, the FCC needed to collect as much information as possible about how such a nationwide switch over should be approached and what effect it would have. "There was a requirement in the stimulus bill that the FCC develop a National Broadband Plan for Congress within a year," Wigfield said. "Part of the question about going from circuit switch to IP is ... can you maybe align the incentives for investment and government incentives better if there's an IP network rather than this bifurcated circuit switch phone service? So we're looking at what these issues are and what it would take to make that switch."

In a Dec. 21 filing from AT&T to the FCC, the telecommunications giant claimed the switchover is not only necessary, but is already an inevitable and accelerating process. "With each passing day, more and more communications services migrate to broadband and IP-based services, leaving the public switched telephone network ('PSTN') and plain-old telephone service ('POTS') as relics of a by-gone era," the filing reads. "The Commission has been charged by Congress with formulating a National Broadband Plan that will result in broadband availability for 100 percent of the United States. That auspicious goal is within reach, but only if the Commission marshals its resources and those of other stakeholders to develop and execute a strategy ... A key component of that strategy is the orderly transition away from, and retirement of, the PSTN." The AT&T document further claims that currently "less than 20 percent of Americans rely exclusively on POTS for voice service. Approximately 25 percent of households have abandoned POTS altogether, and another 700,000 lines are being cut every month."

Electronic Security Association vice president Ralph Sevinor, who is founder and president of Lynn, Mass.-based Wayne Alarm Systems, said the AT&T filing was indicative of the telecom's non-security aligned focus. "What AT&T is looking for is if it's one less thing they have to support in their infrastructure it's less they have to do, so it's a dollars and cents thing," Sevinor said. "They're not thinking of it in terms of public safety ... A switch would penalize those who can't afford to switch to more expensive, feature-rich technology."

ESA director of government relations John Chwat said ESA was prepared to advocate for the industry. "ESA, as a member of the Alarm Industry Communications Committee, will be actively reviewing the matter. The next scheduled meeting will be in Washington, DC in March," Chwat said in an email interview. "ESA is also reviewing this issue next week, at our Board of Directors and committee meetings in Ft. Worth."

Lance Dean, cofounder of New York-based 2GIG Technologies, felt the impending switch was not a matter of "if," but of "when." "There's 700,000 lines going down a month. If you do the math, that's 8 million a year," Dean said. "In a few more years there won't be any more landlines."

Sevinor said no timetable had yet been set for a switchover, though AT&T in a June 2009 press release suggested a deadline of 2014. Sevinor said the most important thing members of the security industry could do was stay focused on their mission, become active in industry associations and get educated and informed. "The associations are really taking the lead in getting the word out ... We're working with the AICC closely in a campaign of education and acquisition of accurate data," Sevinor said. "To say in one year POTS should die is not in the best interest of the public ... The industry does realize that we're looking for reliable technological solutions and that could include wireless, wireline, broadband--but we want to underscore reliable."

Dean said he felt the inevitable switch to an all-IP communications network was not a cause for apprehension. "We have the technology for sure to get through this, but the thing is this is going to cost the alarm provider. The industry doesn't trust broadband to be 100 percent reliable, so we have to go to GSM. That's more reliable, but there's a cost there, too," Dean said. "My theory is that the best time to prepare is now. This is going to happen, so we should prepare now on all new installations. ... You can only fight and scramble for so long. Why not prepare your business now?"

The FCC's broadband plan is due to be delivered to congress by Feb. 17.