AT&T Plans Phone Experiments in Two Towns

The FCC will oversee the transition to Internet-based networks in Alabama and Florida.

391081 04: A cell phone tower rises above the trees June 25, 2001 in Sudbury, Massachusetts. The 1996 federal Telecommunications Act prohibited communities from banning cell phone tower construction, but many towns are now asking for moratoriums on the building of towers. Recently, the town of Leicester, Massachusetts rejected a tower, claiming it would be an eyesore in the community. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Feb. 28, 2014, 7:59 a.m.

AT&T an­nounced a plan Fri­day to up­grade its phone net­works in two towns: Car­bon Hill, Ala., and West Delray Beach, Fla.

The com­pany’s even­tu­al plan is to shut down its old cop­per phone net­works in the towns and re­place them with new di­git­al tech­no­lo­gies, such as its fiber broad­band ser­vice or home phones that con­nect to the com­pany’s cell towers.

But for now, AT&T is fo­cused on edu­cat­ing the res­id­ents of the two South­ern towns about the new In­ter­net-based op­tions. The next step will be to con­tin­ue of­fer­ing tra­di­tion­al phone ser­vice to cur­rent sub­scribers, but new cus­tom­ers will have to sub­scribe to the new tech­no­lo­gies.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion will over­see AT&T’s pro­ject in the two towns as part of a lar­ger study of the trans­ition to In­ter­net Pro­tocol net­works. The FCC will have to ap­prove AT&T’s pro­pos­al, as well as the oth­er steps the com­pany takes, as it phases out the old net­works.

“This is a tre­mend­ous quantum leap in tech­no­logy that we’re en­gaged in,” Hank Hultquist, an AT&T vice pres­id­ent for fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ory is­sues, told re­port­ers Fri­day. “And we’re really just at the be­gin­ning of it. Five, 10 years from now it’ll be un­ima­gin­able the great­er cap­ab­il­it­ies that IP net­works are en­abling.”

In­ter­net-based tech­no­lo­gies can carry more traffic and al­low for new ser­vices, such as “Jet­sons”-style video calls or HD voice calls. The tele­com gi­ants are tired of spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars main­tain­ing their aging cop­per net­works when they could be in­vest­ing in the new tech­no­lo­gies.

But tra­di­tion­al phone sys­tems are sub­ject to a slew of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions in­ten­ded to en­sure re­li­ab­il­ity, pro­tect pub­lic safety, and ex­pand ac­cess.

For now, the new In­ter­net-based tech­no­lo­gies face far few­er reg­u­la­tions. FCC of­fi­cials will study the ex­per­i­ments of AT&T and oth­ers to help de­cide which reg­u­la­tions to ap­ply to the new net­works.

Hultquist ad­mit­ted that cus­tom­ers who sub­scribe to AT&T’s home wire­less ser­vice may face dropped calls and oth­er prob­lems typ­ic­al of cell phones. The ser­vice will in­clude a base sta­tion in the home and a tra­di­tion­al-look­ing hand­set, but will con­nect to AT&T’s cell towers just like typ­ic­al cell phones do.

“There are go­ing to be trade-offs,” Hultquist said. But he ar­gued that many cus­tom­ers have already aban­doned tra­di­tion­al phone lines, and that ul­ti­mately the new tech­no­lo­gies will be a ma­jor im­prove­ment for con­sumers.

The com­pany will have to en­sure that con­sumers have ac­cess to 911, in­clud­ing dur­ing power out­ages. Hultquist said AT&T will prob­ably use sys­tems that in­clude back-up bat­ter­ies for power out­ages.

AT&T of­fi­cials said they chose Car­bon Hill and West Delray Beach be­cause the towns will be par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to move to In­ter­net phone sys­tems. The com­pany wants to tackle as many po­ten­tial prob­lems as pos­sible in the two ex­per­i­ments so the FCC will feel com­fort­able even­tu­ally al­low­ing a na­tion­wide up­grade, com­pany of­fi­cials said.

Car­bon Hill is a rur­al, poor town with a pop­u­la­tion of about 2,000. AT&T plans to of­fer 41 per­cent of the res­id­ents the op­tion of its U-Verse broad­band ser­vice or the home wire­less ser­vice. An­oth­er 55 per­cent will have only the op­tion of the wire­less 4G ser­vice, and 4 per­cent are not cur­rently covered by any next-gen­er­a­tion tech­no­lo­gies. AT&T said it will only shut down its cop­per phone ser­vice to the re­main­ing 4 per­cent when it en­sures they have an­oth­er op­tion.

West Delray Beach is a sub­urb­an city with a pop­u­la­tion of about 60,000, in­clud­ing many seni­ors. AT&T plans to of­fer all the res­id­ents the op­tion of either its wire­less or wire­line broad­band ser­vices. Much of the city already sub­scribes to Com­cast for broad­band In­ter­net ser­vice.

The pub­lic will be able to com­ment on the pro­pos­als by AT&T and oth­er com­pan­ies through late March or early April. The FCC is ex­pec­ted to de­cide wheth­er to al­low the com­pan­ies to move ahead with the ex­per­i­ments in May or June.

It will be years be­fore the FCC al­lows pro­viders to shut down their phone net­works na­tion­wide in fa­vor of the new tech­no­lo­gies.

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