AT&T Announces First Two Locations For Tests Of Internet-Based Landlines

Delray Beach, FL, is one of two locations selected by AT&T to begin its test of landline-replacement VoIP service. (afagen)

Delray Beach, FL, is one of two locations selected by AT&T to begin its test of landline-replacement VoIP service. (afagen)

In January, the FCC gave landline telecom providers the go-ahead to begin tests of Internet-based phone service intended to replace existing copper-line phone networks. Today, AT&T finally revealed the two locations in which it would like to kick off its testing.

AT&T has elected to go with Delray Beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast, and the more remote locale of Carbon Hill in northwestern Alabama.

The selections will allow AT&T to test its new service in two very different types of markets. Delray Beach is a densely populated coastal town with 60,000 residents in a major metropolitan area. Meanwhile, Carbon Hill is a city of only around 2,000 people located about an hour from the nearest large city. The median household income in Carbon Hill is around $22,000 a year, less than half the $51,000 median household income of Delray Beach.

While many companies, mostly cable TV providers, already offer voice-over-Internet (VoIP) telephone service and a large number of consumers have made the switch to VoIP because it’s bundled in with their monthly pay-TV and Internet bill, these networks are not currently held to the same reliability and availability standards of those operated by landline phone companies.

Meanwhile, with so many consumers ditching traditional phone service in favor of going wireless-only, the landline providers (predominantly AT&T and Verizon) have been looking for ways in recent to phase out their outdated copper-line networks that they say cost a lot to maintain but no longer bring in enough revenue to be worth the expense.

But there are still large swaths of America, especially rural areas, where the loss of that copper network would be a big problem.

Among the concerns with just doing a wholesale replacement of traditional landlines with VoIP are: the interoperability of networks (will AT&T’s VoIP system play nice with Verizon’s? And what about all the smaller regional carriers?); compatibility of VoIP with business systems (some credit card machines, faxes, and alarm systems will not work over all VoIP networks); and public safety (What happens when there’s a power outage? Traditional landlines will still let you make calls, but VoIP users may not be able to do so).

Thus the FCC, in approving these tests, set forth a number of standards that landline-replacement VoIP networks would need to meet:
• Public safety communications must be available no matter the technology
• All Americans must have access to affordable communications services
• Competition in the marketplace provides choice for consumers and businesses
• Consumer protection is paramount

“We are very realistic about this trial,” writes Fred McCallum, president of AT&T Alabama. “Like with any new program or technology, we expect there will be issues that arise, and, working together, we stand ready to address them.”

The existing landline networks will remain in place during the lengthy testing process, and existing customers would not be forced onto the new network; they would have the choice of opting into the trial.