Residents of Carbon Hill, Ala., and Delray Beach, Fla., may be among the first to bid farewell to traditional landline phone service. If federal regulators approve, AT&T, America’s largest phone company, will use the two towns as testing grounds for the future of telephone technology. New customers in both towns would be unable to sign up for a traditional telephone line, and instead would have to use internet-based or wireless phone connections.
The experiment is part of a slow, industry-led transition to next-generation voice service. After decades of connecting distant friends and relatives over small copper wires and circuit-switched networks, plain old telephone service (the industry calls it “POTS”) appears to be going the way of the dinosaurs. AT&T wants to retire its circuit-switched networks by 2020.
Many people have already ditched their landline phones in a practical effort to cut home utility bills. About two out of five U.S. households rely exclusively on cell phones. Many others are using landline phones that channel their voices over the internet, in the form of data “packets,” rather than through a traditional, direct phone line. In some cases, people don’t even realize they’ve made the switch: It generally occurs when telecommunications providers (including cable companies) bundle phone and broadband internet service plans.
Daniel Lyons, who teaches at Boston College Law School and specializes in telecommunications law, says the traditional telephone service architecture is less efficient than newer technology, and will inevitably disappear. Instead, telecom companies have begun cramming several types of data on a single physical line. For example, traditional copper phone wires these days may carry both internet-based voice service and DSL internet. A single coaxial cable may provide TV channels, internet, and telephone. In some locations, companies are installing fiber optic cables, or encouraging customers to go completely wireless.
“A lot of consumers aren’t even going to notice the transition,” says Lyons. But there are already kinks: Traditional phone lines work even when electric lines are down, and they work well with 911 service. The next-gen networks could have trouble with both issues.
In addition, federal regulators have a giant puzzle in their hands. They’ve long required phone providers to interconnect calls without interruption, and to make phone service available even to rural customers. Those rules, among others, may not directly apply to internet-based calls, so now regulators have to determine how to apply old laws to new networks, something Lyons said could be like “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
And then there’s always the matter of keeping customers happy. The Federal Communications Commission says it will be listening for complaints from Americans—such as those in Carbon Hill and Delray—who liked their plain old telephone service better.
The U.S. Navy plans to deploy a weapon in 2016 that will fire projectiles at seven times the speed of sound, and over 100 miles into the air. The weapon, an electromagnetic railgun, can launch nonexplosive, 23-pound projectiles with the energy of 32 megajoules—equal in energy to a boxcar traveling 100 mph. The projectiles are cheaper than conventional missiles, and safer to handle. Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder said the railgun “will give our adversaries a huge moment of pause to go: ‘Do I even want to go engage a naval ship?’” —D.J.D.