While eating my lunch and reading the news, news.google.com highlighted an interesting article (alas, from Fox News): “FCC announces plans to upgrade century-old phone system“. In short, currently 1/3 of people use cell phones, 1/3 use digital services from cable providers, and 1/3 use what is called POTS – Plain Old Telephone Service. This is the century-old copper wire switching network. Of course, eventually, both the cell phones and digital services end up on that copper as well.
What happened is that yesterday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced plans to expedite the largest change to the nation’s phone system in decades — a move away from the circuit-switched system that sends those analog signals over copper cables to a digital, IP-based network that largely relies on fiber optics. Once tests prove that the new system works in localized trials, the system will be rolled out nationwide, and the copper wires that have been the basis of POSE for over a century will be turned off.
Be scared, be very very scared.
According to the article, the FCC is expected to begin in January “a diverse set of experiments” in order to figure out how to transition to the new IP-based system, a transition certain to take years. FoxNews was told that the initial experiments will likely include regional tests of an IP-based system to ascertain reliability, scalability and so on. The commission’s technological advisory committee set a goal of 2018, which is likely too ambitious, he said. But expect localized trials as soon as 2015. The upgrade may mean introducing the age of video calling to landlines. An IP landline network, unlike current copper wires can handle much larger amounts of data that could be used to make video calls.
What’s missing in the above? Security.
One of the facts I remember from studying for the CISSP is that Federal wiretap laws apply only to telephone (read: POTS) communication. It does not apply to VOIP (which is one reason I don’t do digital phone systems). Once our copper lines move to all digital…
Further, there is no mention of using encryption — or giving the provision for encryption. Ideally, if we’re going digital, it would great to be able to be able to use public-key encryption for the payloads of the messages (not routing), where the user controlled the key (for one thing, this would allow you to sign over the phone). Will it be there?
What about analog devices? Is this the death of the modem? What about all the technologies that depend on analog signals over copper (many medical devices do; fax machines may)? Does this mean (using an IP-based service) that a side-benefit is instant internet connectivity? What does that do to the ISPs?
One big advantage of copper is that it provided its own power infrastructure. If your electricity went down, often your phones would continue to work. That’s not true for VOIP, where you require additional power adapters. Further, the phone system was very simple — which also made it robust. Yes, the Internet was designed for robust switching, but I’m not sure it will have the resiliency we’ll need for nationwide telephone service in emergencies. One wonders, in fact, if they’ve actually figured out all the requirements properly.
Much as I can see the benefits to moving away from copper, I’ve got the increasing feeling that these benefits are not necessarily for the end users. They will lower costs for the telcos, and may make things easier for, umm, other parties, but the end consumer?
Your thoughts are welcome.