An interesting debate is going on at the FCC these days. The Technical Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory group of industry experts who offer guidance and input on technology policy to the FCC and its Commissioners, is debating whether the FCC should establish a date certain end for the public switched telephone network (PSTN). A provocative question for the Telecompetitor community, indeed (you can watch the actual FCC proceedings on this here).

Tom Evslin, a member of the TAC and sits on the subcommittee which is addressing this end of the PSTN question, discusses this important issue on his blog, Fractals of Change. It’s a touchy issue. I think we can all see the writing on the wall regarding legacy phone service – at least at it relates to plain old telephone service (POTS). I for one believe the decline of POTS doesn’t mean customers are abandoning voice service. It just means they are choosing to get it in a different form, including wireless, but also including VoIP powered wireline digital voice.

One could argue the PSTN already enables many of the broadband services of today, right alongside phone service. Is a better description of this discussion ‘transitioning the PSTN to the Broadband National Network (BNN)?’ The challenge of course is, that’s easier said than done. When do you actually make the cut over? I would assume you could only do so after universal broadband, with everyone subscribing to it, is achieved. No trivial task.

Evslin points out that the market is already deciding this issue. Through their choices, customers are abandoning the PSTN in favor of wireless and broadband. According to the “… National Center for Health Statistics, only 6% of the US population will still be served by the public switched telephone network (PSTN) by the end of 2018,” he states. Part of the rub with this argument is how you define the PSTN. Are the fiber connections to the wireless towers which carry wireless traffic and eventually interconnect with the PSTN, part of the PSTN? Are copper local loops that provide DSL service no longer part of the PSTN?

Evslin goes on to argue that if this issue isn’t resolved, we face much harder choices in the future. “As the most lucrative customers leave the PSTN, the cost of subsidizing the remaining customers – who will be mostly rural with a sprinkling of the elderly and technophobes in more urban areas – will go through the roof … Why continue to subsidize the most expensive and least effective way of keeping people in touch?” he argues. There are some really important issues to consider regarding this discussion, not the least of which is how you handle E911 services in a post PSTN world.

Evslin says the government needs to lead on this issue and the only way to plan an orderly transition is to set a date certain, from which everyone can work back from and plan accordingly. “The date, in my opinion, should be the earliest possible time we can assure that alternatives to the PSTN are universally available, so long as we spend less public money in providing these alternatives than it would cost us to keep the PSTN alive past the date certain. My guess is that we’ll find this date is sometime in next five to seven years,” says Evslin. Will we be saying goodbye to the PSTN by 2018? And if so, what will we call its replacement?

 

Image courtesy of flickr user mag3737.

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24 thoughts on “Bye-Bye PSTN. It’s Been Real.

  1. The PSTN is really more about a set of business rules (interconnection, common carriage, rights of way, etc) than the physical layer. Turning it off has more to do with changing laws than any technical cut over.

    1. Perhaps business these rules really exist to continue to mine some of the 'gold' of big carriers.

      Isn't the real deal with the fallacy of simple understanding?? Is the PSTN not 90% broadband after all? Why does the failure to produce a customer driven revenue sharing mechanism for broadband vaporize in the language of PSTN?

      How functional are ANY of these interconnection documents you're talking about??

      The solution remains in changing the vocabulary.

      ct

  2. This might make sense. It's analogous to the digital TV switchover, when a hard date for the switch was made, everyone knew to work towards that date, and make it happen.

    1. I understand the logic, but I think the PSTN shift is significantly more complicated. Maybe a hard date helps in that regard, but I still struggle with the whole concept. For me, you have to define what the PSTN is and what is isn't, before you "turn it off." Seems like defining it would be a spirited debate.

  3. CBTN ……crappy………..broadband………telephone……..network……….
    (delay)……………(fuzzzzzzz)……………..(reorder)

  4. Interesting thoughts… reminds me of a time when ATM ruled and many argued that IP for TV or anything telecom would really be a problem with security, QoS, reliability, etc. – all the things ATM insured. It took about 10 years to resolve most of the issues, but most of the birds have migrated. Not sure we need a cut off date, but the transition seems well under way.

    1. I remember those arguments well Roger. There was real trepidation for IP in the PSTN. I remember someone saying to me about it, "what are you going to do, CTRL-ALT-DEL the whole network?" Look at us now ….

  5. Where to begin! I'm viewing this issue as the PSTN becoming the minimum broadband connection required to sustain what our society and culture defines as communications today.

    So, it might not be a shock for me to view this as a minimum 10Mbps full duplex connection with incentives today and co-op oriented drivers to achieve 1Gbps full duplex. I'd view this in terms of 10Gbps being increasingly common for interconnects and 100Gbps being a just around the corner for wider markets.

    Consider that POTS sustains audio or a certain bps dialup data connection. Next consider that POTS was out and about that the bundles at the far ends were in groupings of OC-3/12/48/192. Clearly we've been successful at the voice side of things and as a country — not dead last in terms of broadband penetration.

    What is clear though is that the Internet and how it becomes as critical to business as having a hard phone line was a few years ago — and what requires the type of high speed network that either can prioritize multimedia commensurate with consumer and business demands OR a network that is so engineered as to have capacity to handle what is needed today with an eye to the burst and growth we have seen in the short history of a wider socially connected web.

    I think it was Enzo Ferrari who said it best about network design… QoS is for those that cannot engineer a network for capacity. 😉

  6. Where to begin! I'm viewing this issue as the PSTN becoming the minimum broadband connection required to sustain what our society and culture defines as communications today.

    So, it might not be a shock for me to view this as a minimum 10Mbps full duplex connection with incentives today and co-op oriented drivers to achieve 1Gbps full duplex. I'd view this in terms of 10Gbps being increasingly common for interconnects and 100Gbps being a just around the corner for wider markets.

    Consider that POTS sustains audio or a certain bps dialup data connection. Next consider that when POTS was out and about the bundles at the far ends were in groupings of OC-3/12/48/192. Clearly we've been successful at the voice side of things and as a country — not dead last in terms of broadband penetration.

    What is clear though is that the Internet and how it becomes as critical to business as having a hard phone line was a few years ago — and what requires the type of high speed network that either can prioritize multimedia commensurate with consumer and business demands OR a network that is so engineered as to have capacity to handle what is needed today with an eye to the burst and growth we have seen in the short history of a wider socially connected web.

    I think it was Enzo Ferrari who said it best about network design… QoS is for those that cannot engineer a network for capacity. 😉

  7. (digits dialed) duh….dih…..duh…dah..dah..dEE…Dee…duh…………………………………………………….(15 seconds pass)…ring……………ring………….ring………ring

  8. I can see the PSTN "ending" on local access lines, but I don't see carriers walking away from their SS7 networks anytime soon. What about network security? Has the SS7 network ever been hacked? Probably not.

  9. Real economy should be the driver for this change. Aren't we finding that, per conversation, broadband carriage of traffic is less expensive than using circuit switched networks? Aren't we also finding that new broadband based switches are a lot less expensive than new legacy equipment? Aren't many companies, including RLECs, shipping their originating traffic to VoIP tandems (so to speak), even if the originating calls might be circuit switched at the home CO? Doesn't competition for these voice customers demand careful economic consideration of future capex and ongoing opex costs.

    I am not sure I see a need for a government mandated conversion date. I think a common set of rules for security and quality of calls are necessary but not a cutover date. This will happen naturally, and ubiquitous broadband service is not a necessary prerequisite.

  10. well, let's see how this works. Some company is 1) going to have to build a broadband line to the most expensive parts of the county and 2) going to build it to a customer that doesn't want broadband in the first place. at what point do a bunch of urban/regulatory elites visit the low income urban areas and high cost rural areas and meet with some consumers. because you went to Harvard, Columbia or Yale doesn't mean that you now know all things

    1. Jack, you hit the nail on the head. Whenever an FCC official travels to a rural telco, we always show them how advanced our rural area is and the broadband that is available. We might even show them a business that has flourished because of broadband availability. Kudos to that.

      But do we ever show them the percentage of rural customers that 1) don't want the Internet and 2) will never get connected to the Internet? There will never be 100% Internet penetration, just like there's not 100% phone service penetration. In fact, I'd bet that of the percentage of consumers that already have phone service, not all of those will get Internet service.

      Knew I should have gone to an Ivy school… 😉

      1. Boy, I'm sure glad the auto industry didn't hold out for the remaining people who really cherished the horse and buggy. I mean come on. Are you seriously making the argument that the PSTN shouldn't evolve because a few of your customers don't want the Internet? Talk about not seeing the forest among the trees!

        Listen, for the small minority of people who don't want Internet/broadband, take a broadband circuit to their house, deliver voice via IP. They don't have to use the Internet. They'll still have dial tone, and they won't know the difference. How hard is that?

  11. All LEC's should have a day of "routine maintenance". We all cut off our switches/routers/etc to update our technologies, if you will. Let's see what happens when the "red phone" in the white house does not have dialtone. Let's see how many wireless calls terminate,how the Broadband network operates, how VoIP calls terminate,how the entire business sector stops working, and what happens when money stops flowing through the economy.

    If it is dead, let's give them " the regulators, legislators, businesses, and residences" a preview of what dead really looks like. I promise everyone would have an epiphany on what makes the country communicate. Yes, the network has to change. Yes, voice is not the driving component. Yes, the means in which it is funded will need to change. However the underlying factor is we have to rely on the network of interconnections, and the transmitting of information. It's simply a matter of letting the "Public Switched Telephone Network" (PSTN) transition over to the "Public Switched Network" (PSN).

  12. OK–I agree with most of what I've seen in these comments so far, but what about mandating that the State run PSC's either get out of the business of tightly regulating the local POTS provider, or expand the regualtions to cover all other alternative providers? It makes me laugh when I hear regulators still talk about inerlata and intralata today when all the alternate providers don't even know what these terms mean because they don't have to comply.
    Set a date certain when all these rules and regs that tie the hands of the local POTS provider and prevent them from competing with other providers on a :level playinng field" go away and allow a 2 to 3 year period for the local ILEC's to position their systems to fully utilize their infrastructure at its maximum capacity. Once this 2 to 3 year period is over, evaluate the results and go forward from there.

  13. @reality: Love the way the rural ILECs attempt to portray themselves as vital and therefore deserving to featherbed on the government’s USF gravy train. This is one thing that will certainly change with the demise of the PSTN. Rural providers will have competition and will have to earn their keep.

    1. Rural providers will have competition? In the area we are in, there is no competition in the rural areas because nobody else wants to provide service to the truly rural customers, it costs too much money to get cable and service out to these people. By truly rural I mean areas that have less than one subscriber per route mile, not a suburb or a housing developement. The rural ILECs are absolutely vital in these areas or these people would not have phone service, and the USF is the only thing that keeps the phone service affordable to these customers.

  14. Wireless ISPs can provide faster broadband than rural ILECs, far more cheaply, in areas with low population densities. It’s only a matter of time before they come in and render the ILECs irrelevant.

  15. Not every subscriber in the rural markets can be served by wireless, the geography of the land will not allow it. And no wireless ISPs have shown any interest in this area because they would have to put up several towers just to cover a very small customer base. Also, the wireless speed offerings we have seen are not competitive with FTTH.

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