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Is It The End Of The Line For The Landline?
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Is It The End Of The Line For The Landline?

The Industry

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

America's traditional phone system is not as dependable as it used to be. With so many problems, last month the Federal Communications Commission - the FCC - told phone companies to start collecting statistics on calls that don't go through, or ones that break up.

Of course, these days, we have many communications options. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the death of the landline may come with a cost.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Dan Newhouse is a farmer in eastern Washington state. I reached him a few weeks ago for another story. But we spent the first few minutes talking about the stubborn hum on his home landline.

DAN NEWHOUSE: Anytime it rains, we wouldn't be able to have this conversation because water gets on the lines and it gets way worse.

KASTE: The repairmen come out, but they tell him that the wires are just old; and they're not about to be replaced.

NEWHOUSE: The last time, the pedestal down at the bottom of our driveway - somebody had hit it and knocked it over - they straightened it up and wrapped it with electrical tape, and that was their fix.

KASTE: America's traditional phone system was once the best in the world. Now, it's in decline. Rob Frieden is a professor of telecommunications and law at Penn State.

ROB FRIEDEN: The switches, the actual infrastructure, are reaching end of life. And sort of ironically, so too are the personnel, the engineers who have received training to maintain those expensive switches.

KASTE: Of course, these days, a lot fewer people pay for what the industry calls plain old telephone service. Frieden says the telecoms are urging people along to the new stuff: wireless and Internet-based-phones. Problem is there are still millions of people who want the dependability of traditional phones.

FRIEDEN: This is old-school. But there are plenty of instances where the cable goes out, the electricity goes out, and the phone network is there.

KASTE: That's because traditional phone lines have their own electricity and even battery power. And then, there's audio quality. On Internet phones, your conversation competes for bandwidth with your neighbor's Netflix and funny things can happen. Just listen to these dropouts while Frieden was talking to me.

FRIEDEN: The phone companies want other technologies so maybe they've already started the process of being a little less vigilant in terms of maintaining the infrastructure.

KASTE: The Internet-based phone in his campus office just wasn't playing nice with my Google voice, also on the Internet. The fact is, Internet phone service just isn't regulated the same way traditional phones are.

JOHN STEPHENSON: Just having rules around because they were how we did it back in a very different world doesn't make much sense.

KASTE: That's John Stephenson. He's with ALEC, that's the American Legislative Exchange Council. It fights for a smaller government and it's encouraged states to exempt Internet phone service from the traditional phone regulations. He says fewer rules will mean more investment in the new-fangled stuff.

STEPHENSON: We feel, based on our research and experience, that if we were to clear the underbrush, these rules written long before the Internet was even a word, there would be a lot more broadband deployed to the United States and things that are even better that we can't conceive of today.

KASTE: At the national level, AT&T wants FCC permission to start abandoning traditional phone circuitry altogether. Harold Feld is following this process for Public Knowledge, a nonprofit specializing in communications policy. He says he's all for new technologies.

HAROLD FELD: What we don't want to see, though, is a phone system that was the envy of the world goes away and it becomes a system that works well if you're in the right place and you can pay for it and works poorly if you're not.

KASTE: Feld uses a medical analogy to describe what's happening to our phone system right now. He calls it network neuropathy, a sort of tingling sensation of the extremities in the form of dropped calls and bad audio. He says he hopes it's just a passing symptom as we abandon the old phone system for the new. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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