US Gov't Wants to Upgrade Nation's Landline Network

Dennis Faas's picture

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says it's time to update America's outdated landline telephone network. Chairman Tom Wheeler is calling for an all-digital system that works much like the Internet.

At the moment, all landline phones in the United States connect to a single analog network made up of old copper wire and switches. Many of the key components are in such short supply that they are extremely expensive to replace, or simply aren't made any more.

That not only makes it difficult for phone companies to maintain the network, but it means adding new lines or dealing with increased use (as cities grow) becomes problematic.

Another limitation of the current phone network is that the electrical signals that carry your voice usually go through a single fixed route. That means a single fault somewhere in the system can leave people with impaired service or no service whatsoever.

Digital Network Less Vulnerable to Faults

Wheeler wants to replace the network with a digital set-up that would be less reliant on physical switches. Under this system, if components failed they would be cheaper and quicker to replace. It would also be a much simpler operation to add capacity as local populations grow.

Such a network would likely operate in the same way as the Internet, meaning that rather than travel down a single path, voice data could take numerous different paths to get to its destination. That could reduce glitches on calls and also limit the disruption caused by network faults.

Another possible benefit of switching to a digital network is that it could allow phone companies to offer video calls, making such technology available even to people with limited access to broadband Internet.

Switch Could Cause Political Disputes

It appears all five FCC members agree with the principle of the change. The commission expects to pass a formal order next month that will allow testing to begin early next year. (Source:

It's worth noting that the change may lead to political headaches. Some politicians may argue that an all-digital system would come under the same regulations as the Internet, over which the FCC has limited powers.

That might threaten existing rules, such as a requirement that at least one phone company offer service to every home, no matter how remote and unprofitable it is to serve. (Source:

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