Filling The Gaps Your Old Phone Left Behind

Imagine yourself standing in your kitchen. Or your garage. Or your home’s front hallway.

Now imagine calling someone on your cellphone and trying to talk from that location – for an entire year. Aside from the practical limitations on your end, how would the technology hold up for such an experience? Would your cellular connection function so reliably that, in the entire year, you would not lose service for more than five minutes and 15 seconds?

If so, then congratulations. Assuming you are correct, your domestic cell service has achieved “five nines” – that is, it operates as expected 99.999 percent of the time.

Does that sound like a ridiculously high standard? Maybe. But it is the standard that old-fashioned landline telephone systems have been expected to achieve for decades.

Now ask yourself the same question about your household Internet connection. Do you experience five-nines reliability there? I don’t. I doubt many of my American friends and neighbors do, either.

That leaves us, at least temporarily, in the heart of a tricky technological issue that will probably come to a head sooner rather than later. Our old-fashioned landlines are going to go away. Plain Old Telephone Service, or POTS as it’s called within the telecommunications industry, works like a charm for its intended purpose, but it does not do many of the things we want our modern communications systems to do, such as carry high-definition streaming video efficiently to every screen in our newly digital households. It is also expensive to maintain all that ultra-reliable but outdated equipment, not to mention countless thousands of miles of outdoor cable and indoor wiring, nearly all of it made from copper.

Phone carriers are therefore trying to get out of the business of providing POTS as fast as they can. Companies generally can’t just pull the plug, even if they would like to; in most cases, state legislatures need to revise or eliminate mandates making landline service the “carrier of last resort,” available to nearly anyone who wants it. Companies like AT&T and Verizon are lobbying for states to make such changes, laying the groundwork to cut POTS from their service lineup.

In the meantime, most consumers have already moved away from POTS. Internet-based phone service is rapidly gaining market share from landlines, especially when companies offer it bundled with broadband and cable at a discount. Many households (especially those headed by millennials) have no house phone at all as such, relying solely on cell service. Only around 10 percent of American households have POTS-only service today. It is safe to assume that many are headed by people like my mother and my father-in-law, who are in their 80s and 90s. POTS is, quite literally, a business that will die of old age.

Our digital future is not all bright and shiny, however. In most situations, we are prepared to live with communications services that are faster, cheaper and fancier than their predecessors, even if that means our service is somewhat less reliable than the phones we saw teenagers using in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

But this is a trade we don’t want to make if someone breaks into our house, or if there is a fire, or if life-sustaining medical equipment fails in the middle of the night. The majority of alarm systems and medical devices have been designed to use communications services that have POTS-level reliability. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service might not cut it.

Home security company ADT only warrants its conventional equipment to work on POTS or Managed Facility Voice Network (MFVN) systems. On its website, ADT advises customers switching from POTS to VoIP service to call first to make sure the service they want will work with their existing security system. Vonage users need not apply, though many cable companies’ services qualify because the companies maintain their own networks and provide professional installation. Some newer alarm and medical equipment can use cell networks, but millions of older installations would require upgrades or replacement.

A lot of factors contribute to the reliability of POTS and the relatively sketchy performance of newer technology. One important distinction is that your old-fashioned phone drew its power directly from the phone company, not the wall outlet. If your home suffered a blackout, your phone usually still worked. Most Internet-based systems go dead when the lights go off, because the phones and the cable modems to which they connect both rely on your home’s electricity. Even if you have a battery backup for your modem and router, your Wi-Fi is only as good as the cable that connects it. If your VoIP provider relies on the power company, as most of them do, you are out of business when your neighborhood goes dark, even if you’ve taken steps to be prepared.

Cell phones, however, continue to work as long as cell towers nearby are powered up, as is the case most of the time. There have been exceptions during major disasters, notably Hurricane Sandy, but those are situations in which even POTS service was liable to fail. Cell towers make it easier and faster to restore service over a wide area, too.

Of course, when those towers are fewer and farther away, they may be less helpful. Outside of metropolitan areas, cell towers grow sparser and 3G and 4G capability is limited. Internet connections fast enough to support VoIP service may also be hard to come by in the same areas, since federal regulations don’t currently guarantee Internet access in the same way they have traditionally guaranteed POTS. Rural communities may run into problems if forced to cut the cord – or the copper cable – without such regulations adapting to the state of modern technology.

POTS had its own vulnerabilities, too. A burglar needed only to cut one low-voltage wire to knock out an alarm system. Falling trees can take down phone lines just as easily as power lines. A failure of a central office switch, albeit extremely rare, could take out service for an entire town or big-city neighborhood.

While the end of POTS is inevitable, there are still a few roadblocks. There will be some bureaucratic resistance to the switch away from POTS. Expect commercial resistance too: Alarm system vendors who made their money from monthly monitoring fees don’t universally applaud the switch to VoIP, which exposes their customers to the marketing of competitors. But it is going to happen, and it will probably happen relatively soon.

When it does, I imagine we will see hybrid systems emerge to handle the gaps POTS left in our infrastructure. For example, a secure home will probably have its own source of backup power, either from a generator or a battery bank that can keep VoIP alive for up to 24 hours, plus a secondary connection to a cell network that can be used for communication if cable- or fiber-based Internet fails.

Such redundancy may get us back to five nines in practice, even if our immature new technologies are as prone to swooning as the adolescents who fawned over Conrad Birdie.