Can We Have an Intelligent Talk About Legacy Copper?

By Doug Mohney April 02, 2014

Fixed line telephony is still a $150 billion business, according to a Tweet from Alan Quayle at the WebRTC Summit this week. But that pot of money is slowly declining as revenues shift. I know AT&T and Verizon want to get rid of all their legacy copper plant as soon as possible, but the more honest question is, what will they replace it with in areas where they do not have copper?

Verizon's unspoken and much criticized policy when copper goes "bad" -- and there's no fiber around -- is to shove a wireless solution down the throats of consumers and businesses alike.  "Voice Link" got a big workout in New York and New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, where it became clear that the fixed wireless service had major issues as a simple plug-and-play replacement for things such as fax machines, alarm systems, and DSL. 

Ultimately, Verizon agreed to bring fiber to New York’s Fire Island after complaints, but California is flaring up to be the next battleground where Voice Link is being used at an accelerated rate to replace copper.  Consumer advocates say Voice Link has been in Verizon's plan to get rid of copper in areas nationwide where FiOS isn't available.  The Communications Workers of America (CWA), not exactly a disinterested party, said in July 2013 that Voice Link was going to be "forced" on existing voice customers with a history of repair issues.

The Utility Reform Network (TURN) has filed an emergency motion with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), to ask the regulatory agency to order Verizon to repair the copper-based service that customers have requested to repair or wish to keep the copper rather than have it cut off.  TURN says Verizon has been deliberately neglecting the repair and maintenance of the copper network.

It sounds a bit mean-spirited, but accusations of Verizon playing up copper problems to get customers switched onto FiOS have appeared in the Washington D.C. area. The campaign usually includes one or more robo-calls claiming "phone problems" in the area, followed by a pitch to switch to fiber. At this point, Verizon needs an opt-in from the customer, since plain old telephone service (POTS) is a regulated service while switching to FiOS opens the door to providing (and pitching) unregulated services like Internet and video.

Maybe it's not quite fair to put AT&T and Verizon in the same category. AT&T has chosen to support fiber as its "last foot" technology, pulling fiber into the neighborhood and distributing video and Internet services via copper. However, AT&T found a way to delivery 1 Gig fiber to its customers in Austin when Google showed up offering Fiber as an alternative, so one has to wonder if more competition would be a good thing.

State regulators and municipalities may wish to re-examine the use of rights-of-way. If Verizon is, in effect, abandoning in-place copper, why should the company retain the rights-of-way associated with it? Shouldn't those abandoned rights-of-way revert to the local municipality, where it can reallocate them to one or more fiber providers willing to invest in installing modern infrastructure?  Exactly how far those rights-of-way would extend would be an interesting question, since it could encompass everything from the "last foot" copper all the way back to utility poles and even central office space. 

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

Contributing Editor

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