The death of POTS is greatly exaggerated

But the definition is changing: What should it become?
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A. Michael Noll

A. Michael Noll

It seems popular today to speak of the impending death of POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). But if "Phantastic" is substituted for "Plain," POTS is much alive and booming.

The question is, what does POTS mean? Certainly the technology of telecommunication has progressed significantly over the decades. Strowger switching was made obsolete by crossbar, and then came electronic switching, and then digital, and today packet. Transmission technology progressed too from twisted pair through coax to optical fiber. But the signals carried and switched remained pretty much the same: voice, audio, video, and data.

People still speak over a telephone--be it wireline, wireless, or the Internet's VoIP. The modality is still human speech, with all its intimacy and personality. People still listen to the radio--be it in their cars or at home over airwaves or the Internet. People still watch video--be it over the airwaves, coax, fiber, or the Internet. And telegraphy of the distant past is back in the form of today's e-mail and texting.

Telephone service stopped being "plain" a long time ago with the introduction of such services as caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding, and answering machines. And then wireless cellular service came so that people could be reached anywhere, anytime.

Of course, the provision of POTS over twisted pairs of copper wire with centralized circuit switching is quickly becoming a technological relic of the past. Newer technologies have replaced this relic, such as optical fiber, coaxial cable, and packet switching. But the technology should not define POTS.

There are policy issues when a service becomes defined by the technology. Telecommunication--meaning two-way interaction--eclipses the technology of how it is provided. Yet policy relics of the past--such as universal service, subsidization, 911, rural--remain and are enforced on narrower service definitions from the distant past. Policy that is technology specific does not make sense. If it looks like telephone service, it is and should be regulated as such, although the need and specifics of regulation and subsidization might need re-evaluation.

Lawyers and policy makers have a tendency to become overwhelmed by technology--and today's mantra that "the Internet is everything." The policy issues should be examined in terms of the services provided over telecommunication systems--not the technology of how the signals are transmitted and switched.

In terms of POTS, "Old" means familiar; the modalities of communication--voice, text, images. The "T" stands for "Telecommunication," more broadly than just the Telephone. "Service"--not technology--is what consumers care about. And as stated at the beginning of this article, "P" no longer stands for Plain.

The topics discussed in this article are covered in detail in A. Michael Noll's book, "The Evolution of Media," published by Roman & Littlefield. Noll is professor emeritus at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California.