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The Death of POTS

It seems unlikely there exists another technology as old as Plain Old Telephone Service in everyday use today. POTS as implemented by the Bell System using analog circuits remains little changed since 1920's. POTS predates women's right to vote and emerged as a stable technology at about the same time as Henry Ford's Model T around 1905. POTS now appears in trouble for the same reasons the 8-track tape did not survive. The sound quality sucks.

Jeff Pulver quietly launched the broadband version of Free World Dialup (http://www.pulver.com/fwd) on November 11th by incorporating recent advances in VoIP as he has several times since the original launch of Free World Dialup in 1995. This time he pulled the plug on PSTN connectivity removing the analog portion of the call associated with several miles of copper wire connecting a user's premise to the Bell System central office. Members can now only call other members, but they enjoy sound quality that far exceeds POTS. Once someone makes FWD call they don't use POTS again, unless they have to call someone who remains a non-member. This represents almost everyone at the moment, but it doesn't seem so long ago when no one had an email address.

Free World Dialup brings the email model to telecom. The cost of email has nothing to do with time, distance, or loquaciousness. Same for FWD. FWD requires only Internet access and an IP phone. The notions of local, long distance, and international mean no more to members of the Free World Dialup community than they do to people browsing the web. A conversation between someone in New York City and someone in Athens, Greece costs the same as an email and sounds better than a call next door. The initial improvements in sound quality come from limiting the analog portion of the call to the few feet in the handset cord, but there exists no fundamental obstacles to IP phones that enable CD quality telephone calls.

FWD turns telecom into a simple extension of consumer electronics business. The present implementation uses the widely available and cheap ATA-186 (or cool and expensive 7960) IP phones from Cisco, but there exists few obstacles to add additional IP phones from other vendors. The consumer electronics business grows as innovations make earlier devices obsolete. The improvements create end user demand that makes business in the new devices larger than the business in the now obsolete devices. The cassette tape replaced the 8-track tape. The CD replaced the cassette tape. Ad infinitum.

The amazing durability of POTS did not arise from the fact it represented a wonder technology. POTS always sucked. POTS persisted for business reasons associated with monopolization of telecom and not technology or sound quality. Humans can perceive sound from 50 Hz to 20,000 Hz. POTS captures sound between 300 and 3300 Hz. The ancient analog loop associated with the Bell System in the US and monopolies in other countries add various other impairments to this already poor representation of sound. POTs remained dominant until now, because the monopolies managed to keep innovation illegal for most of the 20th century and thwart the recent desire of policy makers to enable competition. Anyone in the competitive telephone business can relate stories about the predatory tactics of the monopoly. The survival of POTS has nothing to do with R&D.

The world might never know about Free World Dialup and the revolution of voice over broadband except that the monopolist's immune system response to innovation seems unlikely to work this time. The Bell companies in the U.S. already set in motion plans to limit Internet telephony's access to traditional telephone numbers, but Free World Dialup uses its own dialing plan. The Bell companies have asserted that Internet telephony providers should pay the same access fees that destroyed the business models of AT&T, Worldcom, and other IXC's, but doing so will just drive IP telephony off copper toward coax, wireless, and fiber. The *free* nature of FWD means the monopolists will have trouble arguing FWD undermines the Universal Service subsidy scheme. The monopolists can not (finally) decide to increase the quality of POTS, because the nature of POTS arises from the nature of the PSTN itself. A better quality POTS means scraping the entire Public Switched Telephone Network.

The local, state, federal, and international telecom regulatorium seems of no use as a weapon to stop Free World Dialup. The only hope for the status quo seems arguing telephony devices should not get IP addresses or the incumbents might concede the nothing lasts forever. The transition away from POTS will likely follow the transition from traditional mail to email. It will take some time before everyone has a FWD address. People presumably still use traditional mail even 10 years after email escaped academia. Nonetheless, increasing ease of use, growing awareness, and cheaper better IP phones mean the remarkable reign of POTS nears an end.

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