Phones can’t go to POT(s) anymore!

With the outage of AT&T’s cellular service across a sizeable part of the country, we may reminisce about our old landline service, often called POTS (plain old telephone service). But it’s gone and will never come back.

POTS 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 utility pole outside our house or a bit of wiring inside that went awry. We’d call our phone company 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, and the voice quality has never been equalled.

When much of the world went digital and the internet came along, many of us got excited about one of its first useful applications, the ability to make long distant calls, even around the world, for a couple of cents per minute instead of a few dollars. Few of us liked AT&T or the other Baby Bells 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 internet. Soon landlines began to be replaced with VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phones like Vonage and OOMA that connected to the internet.

Still, even with the popularity of cellphones, many of us wanted to hold on to our landlines. They didn’t suffer the outages, the dropped connections, and poor audio quality of cellphones; they just seemed more reliable, especially during an outage like this recent one.

Meanwhile, the industry allowed the POTS system to degrade. My wife was loathe to give up our AT&T landline, considering it more dependable, even as rates rose to $200 per month for two lines. With occasional cellular outages, we were concerned about losing our connection to the outside world, especially 911 service.

What finally led us to close our landline account and rely only on our cellular phones was the incessant spam we received and the failure of the “do not call list” to prevent it. Time after time we’d be interrupted with spam calls, always during dinner, until our landline 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 an interesting industry 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.”

The problems have been exacerbated for years during the changeover from landlines to wireless, especially those rural areas that don’t have a good wireless infrasctucture. President Biden announced last June that more than $40 billion would be distributed across the country to deliver high-speed internet in places where there’s either no service, or service is too slow.

In the UK British Telecom customers faced similar issues, being left without any service for months:

“Martin McShane, who lives with his wife in a village near Worksop in Nottinghamshire, says they were left without a functioning landline number after their house was switched over to the new digital system in October last year. As part of this they were sent two new digital phones, neither of which has worked. Prior to this they had a perfectly functioning broadband and home landline.”

Ironically, while the technology has shifted from analog to digital wireless, we still have to deal with the new version of AT&T (with mergers and breakups is now a different entity). Even though they are a communication company, they continue to do a poor job communicating. At the end of the day of the outage, 20 hours after it began, they’ve had little to say about its cause. Their latest message is that the outage might be related to a software error, although the FCC is investigating the possibility of a cybercrime. But we know they feel bad. According to The Verge, AT&T has announced it is reaching out to “potentially impacted customers” and is slapping a whole $5 credit on their accounts, which it says is the “average cost of a full day of service.”

Sometimes new technology does not mean we get something better, just something different. But we can’t go back because this is considered progress. Progress, especially in the world of tech, usually comes with unintended consequences.

A special note

The long awaited book, Burn Book: A Tech Love Story from tech journalist Kara Swisher debuts this week with great anticipation. Swisher has been one of the few journalists in tech that understands technology well enough to hold its players accountable. She’s a fantastic interviewer and pulls no punches. Both feared and respected, she is someone I’ve had great respect for and admiration for 30 years.

by Phil Baker