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Line-Powered Phone Lines: A Hot Topic Again

Carol Wilson
8/20/2014
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There was a time when the fact that phone lines provided their own electrical power was a differentiation point for telcos in their competition against the cable industry. In fact, there was a time when it was considered a primary weapon in the battle against cable, when many expected that neither consumers nor regulators would want a phone service that relied on a battery backup in times of natural or unnatural disasters.

The lack of line-powering was also considered an early hurdle for fiber-to-the-home deployments. Some even thought every fiber line would come with a copper line, to provide the power.

But a lot has happened since the debates of the late 1980s. I would argue that wireless phones inside the home created the first break with line-powered telephony -- many people went to cordless phone systems because of their convenience without thinking about the fact they require in-home powering to operate.

Then came the widespread adoption of cellular phones, which became the emergency service phone of choice when the power went out. So when cable launched its "digital voice" initiative about 10 years ago, consumers had already become accustomed to the idea that the wired home phone was no longer the lifeline it was once considered. Cable voice was, in fact, voice-over-IP, and required its own battery backup to function when commercial power failed.

When Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) rolled out its FiOS service, installing the battery backups was one of the things that initially slowed technicians down, and led to long installation times. But most consumers were enamored of their faster Internet access and loved having a competitor to cable for TV, so the poor old POTS line wasn't a priority. (And the industry cheered Verizon -- as per this Light Reading poll, dating back to 2007.)

So it might come as a surprise to learn that the issue of line-powering the phone hasn't gone away -- in fact, as this Ars Technica article relates, it's become a major sticking point for Verizon, as it tries to phase out its copper network in areas where it has deployed FiOS. Some consumers are angry about being forced to give up what they see as a necessity: a line-powered home phone line. So Verizon is being accused of neglecting the copper network that feeds those consumers.

But retiring the copper network where FiOS was deployed was always the plan, at least as I remember it. Part of the cost justification of FiOS deployment was elimination of an aging copper network, which is less reliable, harder to troubleshoot and more expensive to maintain than a newer fiber network. The idea of continuing to run a copper network while taking on the expense of a new fiber network didn't seem to make financial sense.


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After a series of major storms -- mainly Hurricane Sandy -- taught the densely populated East Coast new lessons about disaster recovery, however, there is now a new -- or maybe nostalgic -- attitude toward those reliable, line-powered phones. And that attitude could spread, and affect the plans of Verizon, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL) and others, to retire their old copper lines in favor of fiber or even wireless access.

Other people in other places -- such as Houston and the surrounding area after Hurricane Ike hit in 2008 and took out commercial power for weeks -- have learned similar lessons. The phones worked when not much else did.

And so, the whole notion of line-powered phones, which seemed almost quaint just a few short years ago, is once again center stage. I wonder what this next act will reveal.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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brooks7
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brooks7,
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/22/2014 | 12:39:21 PM
Re: 8 hours
 

Duh!,

The specifications are pretty simple for the older telecom systems.  They are supposed to be able to have direct battery backup for 8 hours.  The complication comes in what is modeled for the battery drain of a system.  For our DLCs (outside of the systems that were used by ISPs), we used 25% off-hook for a model.

For the FiOS ONTs, yes we devolved into specification nightmare about talk time and service shutdown.  I was unhappy with the custom battery chemistry because of this requirement.  I think it would have been better to use off the shelf batteries that consumers could easily acquire so that they can replace them.

Carol,

One other HUGE change that happened is that the line powering only works if the phone does not require AC itself.  People started having cordless phones with answering machines built in.  If the power is out at the cabinet, it is likely to be out at the home.  That means that a customer needs an old fashioned, simple phone to make it work.  There are fewer of them than you might think.

Now if we can just the the Panasonic Answering Machine issues solved....

seven

 
Duh!
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Duh!,
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/21/2014 | 10:33:18 AM
Re: 8 hours
I don't remember the details, but the requirement was a bit more complex than that.  I believe there were separate specs for standby time for data, standby time for POTS on-hook, and POTS off-hook.  Plus there is no reason why a customer couldn't plug the service provider's UPS into a secondary UPS. 

Also, all that line power has to come from somewhere.  COs generally have generators in addition to several hours of battery capacity.  DLCs generally have a couple of days worth of battery capacity.  Beyond that, the operator has to dispatch a truck with a portable generator.  During extended outages, generator fuel becomes a problem (as BellSouth discovered after Katrina).

This points to a bigger issue.  Our industry does a lousy job of informing our customers.  We live in a cynical time, and people no longer trust operators, as they once trusted the Bell System.  This stuff is complex, and consumer attention spans are short.  There has to be a way to communicate the concept that FTTH availability is better than POTS, and not have it come off as self-serving corporate blah-blah. 

We just got an email from our FTTH provider about "Power outages & inclement weather".  I'd sure like to have a friendly chat with whoever wrote that. 
brooks7
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brooks7,
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/20/2014 | 3:02:42 PM
Re: 8 hours
Roger. Will send something tonight or tomorrow. seven
cnwedit
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cnwedit,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/20/2014 | 2:54:13 PM
Re: 8 hours
Might need that - this looks like an issue that bears examination. 
brooks7
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brooks7,
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/20/2014 | 2:39:24 PM
Re: 8 hours
Carol, Power is inserted at the point of POTS line termination. In a CLASS 5 switch it's the line bay. On a Digital Loop Carrier it's the POTS line card. Same place ringing is inserted on the line (okay ring relays in one case and SLICS in the other). Let me know if you ever want to a tutorial about the details here. seven
cnwedit
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cnwedit,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/20/2014 | 1:57:18 PM
Re: 8 hours
Seven, 

Nope, I can't see any RFPs on TDM switching. So all of that is of a piece - no TDM switches, no line-powering? Pardon my ignorance on this stuff, it's just not something I've had to deal with much as a journalist. 

 

 
cnwedit
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cnwedit,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/20/2014 | 1:56:08 PM
Re: 8 hours
Phil,

Right now, my flood control system is the only thing with a serious power backup. But we're looking at generators that could keep essential equipment going and I'm think that means the refrigerator and our Internet service. 
brooks7
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brooks7,
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/20/2014 | 1:53:56 PM
Re: 8 hours
Carol, I think the bigger issue is that the equipment to do POTS at the large telcos is really old. You can't buy spares for 5ESS or DMS100 systems anymore. Litespan is gone. I know that AT&T has had to do some juggling to keep switches in production. I can not imagine an RFP to do anything like new TDM voice equipment. Can you? seven
Phil_Britt
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Phil_Britt,
User Rank: Light Sabre
8/20/2014 | 1:52:20 PM
Re: 8 hours
I'm surprised that Comcast didn't try to sell you some type of upgrade to fix the problem. 

There are some interesting posts on "Funny or Die" about Comcast customer service, and how Comcast concentrate's on upselling during calls, though other cable companies (including the one I have) aren't much better in that vein.

Eventually we may all need small generators for backup power, especially in the Midwest. But they are expensive and an adequate generator today likely won't provide enough power in the future. 
cnwedit
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cnwedit,
User Rank: Light Beer
8/20/2014 | 1:17:48 PM
Re: 8 hours
I think you are right - some cable VoIP plans have four-hour batteries. I've been fighting with Comcast over the fact our battery backup service doesn't work and their response has been, "Don't you have a cellphone?"

What's interesting here is the way the industry and consumers moved away from what was once a staple of the wireline world and now we see it coming back. 

The elderly needed wireline service as much 10 years ago as they do now, but that wasn't a topic of discussion. 
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