AT&T and Verizon are pushing hard to shift traditional landline service, which has mostly operated over copper lines, to a system of Internet-based phones by around 2020. If the Federal Communications Commission approves the switch as is, it could come as a shock to the 96 million Americans who still rely on landlines.
The change itself is inevitable: the old copper lines are aging and expensive to maintain. And the new system is already in use. As of December 2012, 42 million Americans had Internet-based phones. But moving to an all Internet-based network will benefit Americans only if the F.C.C. is able to protect them in the shift.
The new phones have some major technical flaws. They can’t hold up during long power failures or connect all emergency phone calls. But there are also regulatory problems: The change in service could free the telecom industry from its obligation to guarantee universal access and fair prices to consumers.
As a result, people in remote or rural areas who rely on landlines could end up paying a lot for a bad deal.
So-called common carrier rules have long required phone companies to offer services to everyone, at reasonable rates. But in a series of decisions beginning in 2002, the F.C.C. classified broadband Internet as an “information service” instead of a telecommunication service, freeing it from these rules. For now, the F.C.C. hasn’t weighed in on where the Internet-based phones — also called VoIP, for voice over Internet protocol — stand, leaving them in regulatory limbo.
While the new phones all rely on the Internet, they don’t all use the same delivery mechanism. Fiber and cable are more reliable carriers than the wireless network that cellphones also rely on. Without new regulations, phone companies could refuse wired Internet service to remote areas where it’s not profitable to build it — a good 25 percent of AT&T’s service area.
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