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
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
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.