Cutting the Cord (Even if You Don’t Want To!)
07.29.2016 by Andrew M. Seybold
I am sorry to see copper wires disappear...I see it as the end of an era. An end to a time when we had the most robust communications network we will probably ever have, built by a monopoly that could have simply built a best-effort network like the ones we are transitioning to in the near future.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a Report and Order known as Technology Transitions, Basically, this document puts forth the requirements wireline (telephony) network operators must meet while transitioning from wired telephony and other wireline services to other technologies. In an effort to protect all of us who use copper-based wire services in one form or another, the FCC has issued a set of what might be called consumers rights.
A Little Wired History
When Ma Bell, the old AT&T long before the break-up, built out the wired telephone network in the United States it did some pretty amazing things. It was a monopoly in every sense of the word in most of the United States. It could have built a less expensive network with less redundancy and less reliability but it chose instead to build a world class, almost mission-critical wired network. It powered phones in our homes and offices from its central offices so when our power went off the phone continued to work. It built redundant routing paths for calls, upgraded field equipment before it had to, built a massive microwave system to transport calls, and ran millions of miles of copper wire, stringing it on telephone poles across the United States. It did such a good job that even today, the most reliable form of voice communications is the wired phone network.
The current FCC commissioners recognize that fact but also that there have been many technology advances since the inception of wireline telephone. Therefore, the six points discussed in its document include: back-up power, notification of the network’s customers and what they should ask their provider, a section on questions and answers, a discussion of copper vs. fiber, and finally how to file a complaint if the network operator does not comply with the previous points. It is clear that the FCC is trying to minimize the impact for customers who will no longer have telephony services available to them via traditional wireline services. However, there are a number of other uses for the same copper wires that carry voice calls. Many of these uses require what is called a “dry pair” of copper wires that runs from one location to another. These are connected to equipment at both ends but the circuit is not attached to the telephony portion of the network. You might think of it as a wire that runs from your stereo to your speaker to carry the sound, or perhaps the wire that connects your thermostat to your heating and/or air conditioning system.
Today thousands of Public Safety agencies use this type of copper circuit to connect remote two-way or wireless radios to a dispatch center. Other departments may use direct copper to send alarms to fire stations, or for direct telephony connections such as what you might imagine as a red phone. Many of these circuits are used for machine-to-machine connectivity (now called the Internet of Things or IoT). Water companies use them to measure the amount of water in a remote storage tank and turn on a pump when it needs replenishing. Cell phones using first, second, and even third-generation technologies used copper circuits to transport voice, text, and data calls from cell sites back to their network and then route them to their destination. Today’s fourth-generation wireless is broadband and copper circuits are no longer capable of handling the amount of data transported to and from the cell sites.
It is not clear how or when these dry contact lines will be replaced. The good news is that a number of companies have already developed ways to make an IP or broadband circuit “look” like a dedicated pair of copper wires. Again, the issue is the cost of the transition from copper to some other technology, the cost of the converters, and the reliability of the new method of connection, all concerns to those who use dry contact copper today.
Replacing Copper Wire
The FCC’s rules do not set an end date for copper wire services, nor does it mean we will all suddenly have gigabytes of data flowing into our offices and homes because this copper is being replaced. There are several ways a network operator can make the transition. Some networks including Verizon have been selling their copper assets to companies such as Frontier Communications, Some will replace some of their copper connections between switching offices with fiber, and some will start moving fiber further out into the network but probably not into the home because of the expense. Many people have already switched from their telco to their cable provider for telephony, Internet, and TV services so they will not be directly affected by the loss of copper wires.
The reason network operators are anxious to stop providing wired phone service is that each year fewer and fewer customers use a wired phone. Yet the cost of maintaining the network in a neighborhood where 50% of the subscribers are no longer connected to Ma Bell is the same as costs were when 100% of the homes were connected. It is also true that copper wires, which are small gauge (22 or 24 gauge) are not capable of providing the bandwidth most people are demanding for access to the Internet or for TV services. When the wires and plant equipment were installed they were designed to carry one thing: analog voice traffic. They have been pressed into service first for use by dial-up modems, which started at 300 Bps, then 1200 Bps, and finally a whopping 56.0 Kbps. Later, wireline engineers learned how to provide DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) services for better Internet connectivity. But speed is limited by the size of the copper wire to a given home and the distance that home is from the nearest central office. Finally, AT&T’s U-Vers and CenturyLink’s service make as efficient use of copper wire running into houses as possible. Depending on where you live, they offer multiple TV channels, Internet, and voice services although there are limitations for these services and “Your mileage may vary.”
So there is a perfect storm for wired network operators to move away from the age of copper to the home. First there is the cost to maintain a system with fewer and fewer customers. Next, we have pushed the capabilities of copper as far as they can be pushed, and then it seems as though the world, and certainly those inside the Beltway in DC, believe broadband is the only form of communications needed moving forward. After all, broadband can be used to provide all forms of voice, text, data, and video services. Thus a single broadband pipe available by fiber or over the air can be used to carry all of the communications and entertainment we will ever want or need. The only issue with delivering broadband services to everyone, everywhere is the cost to deploy it. However, broadband systems designers are about to offer us a slew of delivery options.
The End of Phone Power from the Central Office
One of the things the FCC is aware of is that today’s wired phones provide power down the phone line so even during a power failure in your home your phone will work. When the copper is gone you will need battery back-up or accept the risk of losing communications during an outage. The FCC is also explaining to people that even if they still have wired phones in their homes they may no longer be powered by the phone company. If the phone service provider replaces some of the copper between homes and a central office with fiber (fiber to the pole, for example), the last run of copper from the pole to the home will not carry power since that service cannot be provided over a combination of fiber and copper.
The FCC document provides the chart below detailing the differences between copper and fiber, but remember that even if you lose your copper wires, you may not end up with fiber, at least not yet.
So what are the options for phone, TV, and Internet coming to your house in the next few years? We already have cable for all three. Coax cable is capable of providing a lot of bandwidth into the home and in most places it has been run to every neighborhood and every home that wants it. For example, my cable offers as many TV channels in HD as I am willing to pay for (many more than I would ever watch), Internet speeds of up to 100 Mbps down to the house and 12-15 Mbps up from the house, and if I wanted it, I could receive phone service. However, I have separate phone service from CenturyLink because I want a wired phone system and service diversity, more about that later.
Another choice is DirecTV via satellite and perhaps cable for Internet and phone. Or, since AT&T now owns DirecTV, perhaps a bundle with U-Verse, wireless broadband, and DirecTV. Some people have decided all they really need is an Internet connection. It can be via cable, or fiber, or at the moment, a wired connection. With an Internet-only connection you can stream video (mostly free), make and receive Voice over IP or VoIP phone calls, some for free or a small charge, and connect to the Internet for anything else you might want or need. The only problem I have with this is that the Internet is nowhere near a mission-critical network and in some cases may not even be a best-effort wireless broadband network.
One of the most interesting trends is the move to cancel cable TV and phone service over cable but keep cable Internet access for Internet services instead of paying for cable TV and phone. I say it is interesting because if the trend continues it may put cable operators in the same predicament as wired service providers are today. That is, a very expensive plant to maintain with fewer TV and telephone customers to keep the average income per family higher. If it reaches the point where cable providers are about Internet capabilities, I suspect to see a pushback from the cable industry in addition to the wireline industry.
What New Services Can We expect?
There is hope because there are many new ways coming for bringing communications, Internet, and entertainment into your home or business. For example, instead of fiber to the home, how about fiber to the pole and either light beam or microwave 1 Gbps short hop to your home or office from the street? It is already in operation in some places. A friend of mine who works for AT&T commented that AT&T purchased DirecTV for a number of reasons but especially because DirecTV has expertise in mounting small dish antennas on homes, apartment complexes, and office buildings.
Some companies today provide broadband over point-to-multipoint wireless but it is still expensive and not readily available, especially in high density urban areas. Some I have talked with say they could be happy with the data speed and capacity they now have with their mobile device from their wireless broadband supplier as a fixed point data customer. The only problem is that 4G or LTE (or any cellular system) was never designed to have customers that are always connected and always to the same cell site. Cellular works because it is a mobile technology and people are moving in and out of one cell and into another all of the time. However, the idea of a persistent, always-on connection to a fixed location may be possible when 5G is rolled out.
5G means lots of small cells, perhaps one in your house, to deliver fast Internet. However, each small cell must be connected back to the mother ship (back-end) via a high-speed connection of some type. Small cells will most likely first be placed where that type of connectivity already exists and they will come much more slowly to areas that are not served today by fiber or high-speed microwave circuits. 5G, especially making use of the new spectrum the FCC has allocated for it, will be able to provide gigabit and higher speeds and lots of capacity, but all of that speed and capacity will require even more backhaul capability.
Replacing wired telephony with newer technologies will require major investments. I don’t have a clue what the wired telephony network cost AT&T over the course of many, many years, but I do know that simply adding LTE or 4G to the major wireless network operators’ existing 2G and 3G systems, using collocation and sharing tower space, the backhaul was a more than $30-40 billion expenditure for each major wireless operator. I am not sure how many zeros it will take to estimate the cost of all the broadband fiber and microwave that will be needed to support the promise of 5G and gigabit broadband to the home.
New Models Are Needed
Along with new ways of connecting to the home, or providing the last mile or last 100 feet of connectivity, new build-out models are being introduced and more will follow. When AT&T built out its wired system it had to provide wire to every house in every town and city. After that it was required to run wires into rural America. Some of the cost to run wires to farms in Idaho was covered by federal funds, but not all of the cost was recovered. When cable companies approached American cities and towns, they wanted a franchise to have exclusive rights to 100% of the potential customers in that town or city. In exchange, they agreed to light up every street in the franchise area and connect people as they decided to order cable TV. In rural areas, satellite TV was born so cable did not have to be strung, only mounting a dish on a house. However, all of that was before the advent of the Internet and before any of us really knew what broadband meant.
One of the new models you have to admire is the Google fiber model first offered in Kansas City. The first thing Google did was to cut a deal with the city that it could build out as orders came in. In other words, if it selected an area of the city to advertise fiber and received enough orders it would then build out that section of the city (the deal enabled Google to build only where there was demand). But it was not lopsided in favor of Google, at least at the beginning. If you lived in an area where Google was installing fiber you could have it installed for around $300 and get a much slower speed for free as opposed to subscribing for $70 per month. A subscription provides 1 Gigabit, and since fiber is symmetrical, that is 1 Gigabit in each direction. Want TV, add $60 to the price. Google has since provided Internet for free to a number of low-income homes, and free gigabit fiber to schools, government buildings, and other facilities. Google is in the process of replicating that model elsewhere (but not where I live, unfortunately).
Other models will provide broadband to homes, apartments, and businesses. I am a person who wants diverse communications capabilities for when things hit the fan but I will take fiber to my home, add in some battery back-up or generator capability, and rely on my wireless devices for a diverse communications path.
The Down Side
Wired telephony was as close to mission-critical as we, as consumers, have ever come to resilient communications. What about the new world of copper-free communications? Wireless broadband operators will tell you their service is “best effort” and if the demand for use of the network is too high in a cell site or during a wider-spread emergency, you may not be able to access the network even to dial 9-1-1. The Internet should be considered even further from mission-critical for a number of reasons. First, while the Internet can route and re-route traffic as needed, when it crosses over to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) that provides your Internet access, there can be congestion at that point or an interruption of service between the Internet and your home or office. However, we have yet to experience the impact of the most significant issue with the Internet. We have seen the Internet slowing during heavy use periods but we have yet to see a totally overloaded Internet in a given area. Like wireless, the capacity of any sector of the Internet is finite and therefore subject to failure.
So far, those who have given up their copper lifeline have fared well. The networks they have chosen have stayed up, their home power has stayed on, and their devices have had enough battery capacity to weather a minor outage. What we have not seen is a major cyber-attack on the Internet, or a major sun-spot flare that disrupts wireless communications. What we have seen is a backhoe cutting a fiber cable and cutting off phone, TV, and Internet traffic to a large area. We have also seen storms take out entire areas, floods filling underground fiber vaults, or other local or more widespread disasters. Nor have we seen an attack on our power grid, or a major outage (remember those outages of the past?).
The question I have is, given the end of life of copper connectivity and the less than robust types of communications replacing copper, how does each of us make sure we have the best possible combination of services? The more diverse services available to us, the greater the chance at least one will work when we need it most. However, if we opt for a single connection for all of our communications and entertainment, I think there is a greater danger of someday being without any way to communicate for a period of time. If you cannot communicate you cannot ask for help, check on loved ones, or any number of things each of us does every day without even thinking about the resiliency of our communications systems.
I am sorry to see copper wires disappear. Though many will enjoy the poles in front of their houses carrying one less string of wires, I see it as the end of an era. An end to a time when we had the most robust communications network we will probably ever have, built by a monopoly that could have simply built a best-effort network like the ones we are transitioning to in the near future.
Andrew M. Seybold