AT&T Looking Forward to Ending Landline “Plain Old Telephone Service”

AT&T wants to be relinquished of an Illinois mandate to maintain copper-based landline phones. The century-old technology is seen as more reliable than many modern digital alternatives, but AT&T is no longer interested in investing in a service that most customers don’t want. In addition, the older technology is hard to maintain, with replacement parts that are difficult to find.

We’re investing in a technology that consumers have said they don’t want anymore, and wasting precious hundreds of millions of dollars that could be going to the new technologies that would do a better job of serving customers,

— Paul La Schiazza, AT&T Illinois president

A milestone in 2016 marked the first time a majority of American homes had wireless telephones and no landline phones, according to a National Center for Health Statistics survey. More than 70 percent of adults between 25 and 34 years-old live in wireless-only homes with no landlines, the survey on “Wireless Substitution” showed.

The second 6 months of 2016 was the first time that a majority of American homes had only wireless telephones. Preliminary results from the July–December 2016 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) indicate that 50.8% of American homes did not have a landline telephone but did have at least one wireless telephone (also known as cellular telephones, cell phones, or mobile phones)—an increase of 2.5 percentage points since the second 6 months of 2015. More than 70% of all adults aged 25-34 and of adults renting their homes were living in wireless-only households. This report presents the most up-to-date estimates available from the federal government concerning the size and characteristics of this population.

— CDC National Center for Health Statistics Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates From the National Health Interview Survey, July–December 2016 [PDF]

AT&T is pushing legislation in Springfield that, with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval, would allow AT&T to terminate the landline voice-only network — technology that uses copper wiring, which is known as “Plain Old Telephone Service” or “POTS”. Instead AT&T would focus on the wireless and Internet-based phone technologies that are designed to replace, “POTS”.

However, watchdog groups say the proposal needs more safeguards to protect rural and low-income customers, including seniors who don’t have Internet or Cable TV. One of those watchdog groups is the Citizens Utility Board, which is opposed to the termination of “POTS” which would especially affect seniors citizens. Seniors rely on the landline technology and swear by its reliability.


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A landline doesn’t fail with an Internet outage or power outage, and is more accurate for 9-1-1 caller ID. A 2014 survey conducted for AARP by Hart Research Associates and North Star Opinion Research found that more than half of Illinois voters 65 years and older use landlines most of the time. Also, some burglar/fire alarm systems don’t work with Comcast phone service or AT&T’s U-verse packages that include phone service. AT&T is well aware that some medical monitoring devices and burglary/fire alarm systems only work on traditional landlines. AT&T has said it will certify that reliable replacements are available before retiring the old network, but who pays for the changeover? And what inexpensive services are available without bundles including cable TV and Internet. AT&T landline service without extra features averages about $31 a month in Illinois.

AT&T has 1.2 million traditional landline customers Illinois —- 474,000 residential and 725,000 business customers. Customers are dropping the older technology at a rate of about 5,000 per week.

If legislation to kill “POTS” passes, the Illinois telecommunications modernization bill would take effect July 1, 2017 and AT&T would have the right to cancel the old landline service with 60 days’ notice. Existing customers would have the opportunity to appeal the decision to state regulators.

AT&T still needs approval from the FCC to actually terminate it’s obligation to maintain its “plain old telephone service.” AT&T has pushed for passing of similar legislation in 19 of the 21 states where it is the legacy telephone carrier. California is the only other state hurdle. AT&T is hoping to have all of the state laws approved before getting a nod from the FCC.

AT&T would then go to work eliminating Section 214 of Title 47, the portion of the US Code established largely by the Communications Act of 1934:

No carrier shall discontinue, reduce, or impair service to a community, or part of a community, unless and until there shall first have been obtained from the Commission a certificate that neither the present nor future public convenience and necessity will be adversely affected thereby…

Part of the replacement technology could be home-based phones that use wireless LTE technology.

Unfortunately AT&T doesn’t have the best reputation for wireless coverage in many markets. AT&T revealed in November 2012 that it planned to cover 300 million US residents with 4G LTE service by the end of 2014. Previously AT&T had promised to have 250 million covered by the end of 2013.

AT&T has lagged behind Verizon Wireless in its nationwide LTE rollout, as Verizon intended to have 260 million residents covered by the end of 2012. Verizon also has over 400 markets covered with its LTE service.

AT&T also faces a challenge to provide reliable coverage with new technology in rural areas, where there aren’t enough towers to reliably cover the geography, and congested city areas, where there aren’t enough cell towers to cover the number of simultaneous customers AND there may not be enough cell towers to reliably cover the geography. Recently, even in Arlington Heights, AT&T has promoted the use of femtocells in areas where cell coverage by AT&T’s network are inadequate — and makes the customer pay for the femtocell. A femtocell is a small, low-power cellular base station, typically designed for use in a home or small business. Some are also called femto AccessPoint (AP), which connects to the service provider’s network via a separate broadband (such as the cell customer’s existing cable Internet from Comcast, for example). Current femtocell designs typically support four to eight simultaneously active mobile phones in a residential setting or up to 16 in a business setting.

AT&T announced plans to increase the density levels of its network through the use of small cells, macro cells, and distributed antenna systems. AT&T says that these measures will increase network performance in congested areas in large cities.

“POTS” local telephone wires terminate at the central office (telephone exchange), a structure containing the hardware needed to switch calls among local lines and to long distance networks. As technology advanced, central offices offered more services, such as Caller ID, call return, call-waiting, three-way calling, and voicemail were first offered via central office-based technology. Then newer, PBX and Internet-based technologies arrived.

AT&T invests $1 billion annually in its Illinois technology but has to divert 20 to 30 percent of that to maintaining its voice-only “POTS” network.

In the United States v. AT&T, the U.S. Department of Justice antitrust suit against the former American Telephone & Telegraph Company (later known as AT&T Corp.) resulted in AT&T agreeing on January 8, 1982 to settle the lawsuit and divest its local exchange service operating companies (POTS) effective January 1, 1984. AT&T Corp.’s local operations were split into seven independent Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) known as Baby Bells …

Bell Atlantic
Pacific Telesis
Southwestern Bell
US West

Perhaps an oversimplified explanation … the RBOCs have since merged into three separate companies: AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon Communications, which is not the same as wireless company Verizon Wireless.

Both Verizon Communication and CenturyLink are also moving toward eliminating copper “POTS”.

See also …
AARP Why You Shouldn’t Drop Your Landline Just Yet

AARP Michigan AARP disappointed in House passage of landline elimination bill


AARP A Cellphone-Only World? Not So Fast