When will the (traditional) telephone hang up?

The very idea of what is a phone call is changing, and changing fast. What used to be a fixed phone turned into anywhere calling. Now Facebook, Google (s goog) and Skype (s msft) have made calls about video chat, friends and social circles, not phone numbers. It’s perhaps time to rethink the very notion of a phone call and what defines the classic phone network.

6a00d83451cce569e201538facc233970b-piTom Evslin, who has spent his entire life in telecom and data services industries, believes it’s time for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to come to grips with the reality that people are choosing cellular or Internet voice over traditional phone systems. He points to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics that notes that by 2018, only 6 percent of the U.S. population will be using the public switched telephone network (PSTN), which to non-telecom geeks means: your home phone from the phone company.

Evslin, who is on the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) for the FCC, notes in a blog post that “without continued government support, the PSTN would probably disappear before 2018 since the carriers’ cost to maintain the many miles of copper and the rest of the system doesn’t go down nearly as quickly as revenue from subscribers declines.”

Here were the seven recommendations by TAC to FCC as per a blog post on Avaya’s blog:

  1. Target 2018 as the end of the PSTN.
  2. Develop a timeline to ensure smooth transition which addresses stranded assets
  3. Assure that mobile and/or broadband replacements are available everywhere PSTN is currently provided. The need will be greatest in role areas.
  4. Update the National Broadband Plan to support the PSTN transition.
  5. Change the Universal Service Fund (USF) funding and spending to support universal coverage and other social goals.
  6. Further investigate emergency service impact to assure a suitable replacement capability.
  7. Investigate incentive program for mediation devices to bridge older devices without PSTN or towards purchasing new equipment (consumer focused)

As he points out that the Universal Service Fund (USF) that subsidizes the PSTN in rural areas is going to continue to shrink as more and more people opt for non-PSTN calling options. What happens to the telephone network then?  Tom recommends that perhaps that sunset-ing the PSTN should be synchronized with the National Broadband Plan. It would make sense, though as far as I’m concerned NBP is a white elephant. That said, Evslin is right in saying that perhaps it’s time to start thinking about lower-cost options to the old-fashioned phone network.

And when we are doing that, it’s time to think not about the past but about the future: what communication means in the 21st century and not in terms of something that started almost a century ago. Wednesday’s Facebook-Skype partnership is a good reminder of that new reality.