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It’s over…we can’t go back

With the AT&T outage of cellular service across a good part of the country we may reminisce about our old landline service, often called POTS (plain old telephone service). It was based on a pair of low voltage copper wires coming into our homes. When we experienced a problem it was often the wiring on a light pole outside our house or a bit of wiring in our homes that went awry. We’d call AT&T and get a telephone repair person to fix it. Even when our electricity was out, the landline usually continued to work. It was simple and reliable.

When much of the world went digital and the internet came along, many of us got excited about one of the first useful applications, the ability to make long distant calls, even around the world, for a few cents per minute instead of a few dollars. Few of us liked AT&T with their high rates and extra fees tacked on to our monthly bills. That was the beginning of the end of the landline.

In the early days there were plug in gadgets such as the MagicJack that facilitating connecting to the net. Soon landlines began to be replaced with VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phones like the OOMA, a phone that connected to the internet. Even with the popularity of cellphones, many of us wanted to hold on to our landlines. They didn’t suffer the outages, dropped connections, and poor audio quality that cellphones still do; they just seemed more reliable, especially during an outage like today’s.

Meanwhile, the industry allowed the POTS system to degrade, as if to try to match the poor quality of cellular. My wife was loathe to give up our AT&T landline, believing it to be more dependable, even as rates rose to $200 per month for two lines. What finally led us to close our account and rely only on our cellular phones was the incessant spam we received on our landlines and the failure of the “do not call list” to prevent it. Time after time we’d be interrupted with spam calls, until our land line became essentially useless, and we sent every call to our answering machine. I wouldn’t be surprised if AT&T liked the spam calls, because it allowed them to exit the business a lot sooner. They certainly did nothing to discourage them.

In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission, at the urging of the industry, deregulated the copper lines, allowing providers to phase out support and replace the infrastructure with digital technologies, such as fiber and wireless.

A former repair person for AT&T’s landline business offers his perspective:

“We are customers like you so we aren’t part of this [FCC] decision were here to give the best information we can. You need to understand the why. Just because your traditional landline is dependable doesn’t mean all POTS service is. The copper plant is very old and has been deteriorating for a good many years. I was a cable splicer and cable maintenance technician starting in the early 70’s and much of the plant I worked on was old at that time.  Being cable maintenance, I would troubleshoot and repair the copper infrastructure. During this time the phone companies were a regulated monopoly. Since it was regulated, we were required to maintain service and since we were a monopoly, we were able to adjust prices as needed, with government oversight, to do this maintenance.  Then in 1984 came the breakup of the Bell System, people cheered they no longer had to stick with Ma Bell, that was until prices started going up because cost of maintaining the old infrastructure kept going up along with the cost of labor to get qualified technicians to maintain it. All this plus the competition lead to less money for infrastructure and techs and, if all that wasn’t enough, the phone companies were required to give their competition access to their plant at a reduced cost, cutting even further into their profits. So, they petitioned the FCC to lift the requirements so they could concentrate on more profitable ventures, this all started about 1996. In 2019 the FCC granted the phone companies, all of them, permission to phase out traditional landlines, which they are all doing.”

Ironically, while the technology has shifted to wireless digital, we still have to deal with AT&T and their high rates and sketchy service. And even though they are a communication company, they continue to do a poor job communicating. At the end of the day today, 20 hours after their outage began, they’ve had little to say about its cause. Their latest message this evening is that the outage might be related to a software error, although the FCC is investigating the possibility of a cybercrime.

Sometimes new technology does not mean something better, just something different. But we can’t go back because somehow this is considered progress.