AT&T to FCC: Let My Landlines Go!

The Federal Communications Commission is delving into the future of communications with a request for comments on an all-IP telephone network. Last week, AT&T filed its comments, which shows someone at the carrier is reading GigaOM, or at least the writing on the wall when it comes to landlines. In a 32-page filing, Ma Bell asked the FCC to eliminate regulatory requirements that it support a landline network and to provide a deadline for phasing it out.

The (almost) one in five Americans relying exclusively on a plain old telephone line should prepare to kiss that wall jack goodbye as the major wireline telephone providers back away from that dying (and expensive business). However, AT&T in its filing doesn’t offer a way to bridge the gap for that 20 percent of Americans relying only on landlines, nor does it address what an all-IP future means for the 33 percent of Americans who have access to broadband but do not subscribe (although those broadband laggards might be paying for a digital voice product from a cable provider).

To defend the rush to VoIP, AT&T offered data that shows how the increase in voice options, from cellular phones to cable VoIP, and the rise in costs associated with running a switched access network are hurting its business while providing little benefit to the consumer. We pointed this out in an April story, later picked up in the NY Times, although the Times got the credit in the AT&T filing. But AT&T offers some other scary stats:

  • Between 2000 and 2008, total interstate and intrastate switched access minutes have fallen 42 percent.
  • For the incumbent local exchange carriers, revenue from wireline telephone service fell to $130.8 billion in 2007 from $178.6 billion in 2000 — a 27 percent decrease.
  • At least 18 million households currently use a VoIP service, and it’s estimated that by 2010, cable companies alone will be providing VoIP to more than 24 million customers; by 2011, there may be up to 45 million total VoIP subscribers.
  • Today, less than 20 percent of Americans rely exclusively on switched-access lines for voice service.

In addition to a firm deadline for dumping the old network, AT&T calls for the FCC to seek input on additional regulatory changes to enable a transition away from copper phone lines. Those include putting broadband regulatory jurisdiction at the federal rather than local or state level, reforming inter-carrier compensation, changing the aims and structure of the Universal Service Fund, and eliminating state regulations that dictate that a carrier serve all people in a geographic area. It also told the FCC that it needs to figure out how to handle public safety and folks with disabilities in this VoIP world.

The filing shows that it’s easy to declare VoIP as the future of telecommunications, hard to figure out regulatory policies that will make that a reality, and even more difficult to make sure everyone can make that leap.

Thumbnail image from Old Telephones via Flickr Photo of AT&T building by Mr. Bill via Flickr

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