Policy Makers and the Push for an All-VoIP American Network

by Jennifer Cuellar

In the VoIP industry, it’s become almost taken for granted that the PSTN (public switched telephone network) will be dismantled within just a few years. Though this news has not garnered much attention outside of the VoIP industry, closing down the PSTN will represent a major change in the telecom world.

Remember all that stuff you learned about Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone? Well, since even those very earliest days of telephone use, the national structure for the relay of telephone calls has been changing, slowly but surely. Around the 1960s, PSTN operators began to switch from analog switches to all digital switches.

The PSTN is a general name that represents all of the components by which phone calls are transferred in the country and in the world (cables, towers, telephone poles, etc.). It is up to telephone service providers to keep the PSTN running and healthy. As the PSTN is composed of many physical systems, this requires much maintenance, repair, and costly upkeep for the service providers.

Today, the PSTN is mostly composed of digital switches, but even so, PSTN operators are moving towards a complete dismantling of the PSTN in favor of depending entirely on VoIP lines. VoIP lines are cheap for providers to use, and easy to maintain. If every customer in the US used VoIP, there would be that much less maintenance and upkeep for the providers to worry about.

However, as service providers have pushed for a conversion to all-VoIP systems, they have met with resistance from lawmakers and some customers. Thus, the switch to an all-VoIP system will likely take much deliberation and drafting before all parties involved, providers, customers and policy makers, can settle on a suitable solution.

In Kentucky, AT&T recently pushed for policy makers to allow for AT&T to switch all of their customers over to VoIP. However, policy makers worried that it would be unfair to force all of their customers to convert to VoIP. Lawmakers felt that some people, especially the elderly, would not find it easy or manageable to switch to VoIP, and so could be in danger of losing connectivity altogether. Thus, legislators denied AT&T’s push to abandon the PSTN.

Such worries are common among legislators, but if a US-wide switch to VoIP were handled in a well-planned and careful way, customers should find the switch to VoIP easy. And for elderly customers who may not be set up with Internet, having a provider come in and set up an Internet and VoIP line would be no more complicated than having a service person visit their home to install an analog phone line. In fact, the process would arguably be much simpler, and certainly cheaper.

However, in an interesting speech reported in Business Record, former congressman Rick Boucher remarked that, while VoIP certainly should continue to grow as our central means of telecom service, it should be regulated, taxed, and monitored in just the same way as analog service. As he pointed out, VoIP currently requires many cables and lines, just like analog service, because it requires Internet connectivity. Thus, if providers could bring in VoIP without regulation and without PSTN maintenance fees, they would have an unfair advantage over traditional providers.

Rachel Greenberg is site editor for My VoIP Provider. She works out of San Diego.

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