Back in the mid-80s, there were major debates around how to power phone lines that weren't copper - guess what? Those debates are raging again.

August 20, 2014

3 Min Read
Line-Powered Phone Lines: A Hot Topic Again

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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