America's traditional phone system is not as dependable as it used to be. Just last month, the Federal Communications Commission told phone companies to start collecting stats on calls that fail to complete. According to one estimate, as many as 1 in 5 incoming long-distance calls simply doesn't connect.
The problem may be in the way those calls are being routed — often via the Internet, which is cheaper. It may also have something to do with the gradual decay of traditional landline infrastructure.
Dan Newhouse, a farmer in eastern Washington state, hears that decay on his home phone every day.
"We live out in the country, it's a landline, and it's as good as it gets," he told me over the phone. "Anytime it rains, we wouldn't be able to have this conversation, because water gets on the lines and it gets way worse."
Repairmen have told him that the wires are just old, and they're too expensive to be replaced. He says the phone company seems to be allowing the whole system to deteriorate.
"The last time, the pedestal down at the end of our driveway, someone hit it and knocked it over," Newhouse says. "They straightened it up and wrapped it with electrical tape, and that was their fix."
Rob Frieden, professor of telecommunications and law at Penn State, says people like Newhouse aren't imagining the declining quality.
"The switches — the actual infrastructure — are reaching end of life," he says. "And, ironically, so too are the personnel, the engineers who received training to maintain those expensive switches."
Of course, these days, a lot fewer people pay for what the industry calls "plain old telephone service." Landlines used to be nearly universal; now only about 71 percent of homes have them. If this keeps up, the traditional "switched" phone system simply won't be able to pay for itself.
Frieden sympathizes with phone companies' reluctance to maintain the traditional system, but he says we should think through the consequences of letting them abandon it. We may miss it.
"This is old-school, but there are plenty of instances where the cable goes out, the electricity goes out and the phone network is there." Frieden says.
That's because traditional landlines have their own electricity and even battery power. Then there's audio quality: On Internet phones, your conversation competes for bandwidth with your neighbor's Netflix, and funny things can happen. If the audio is too compressed, it can sound "gargly." Or there can be latency — audible gaps in the sound.
And that's where the big debate is happening right now: Should the new forms of telephony be as tightly regulated as the traditional system was? As you'd expect, telecom providers say no. They don't want to see Internet and wireless phones bound by regulations such as "Carrier of Last Resort," the principle that a phone service must be available at prevailing rates even to customers who live in places that are expensive to serve, such as farms.
"Those [rules] were written at a time when consumers had no choice in the matter," says John Stephenson, director of the Communications and Technology Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council. That organization pushes for smaller government, and Stephenson says fewer regulations for Internet-based phones will lead to more investment in broadband Internet service.
"If we were to clear the underbrush of these rules written long before the Internet was even a word," Stephenson contends, "there would be a lot more broadband deployed to the United states, and things that are even better that we can't conceive of today."
ALEC has been quite successful, writing model legislation for states seeking to deregulate Internet phone service. Stephenson counts 29 states that have "modernized" their laws in this regard. But Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Internet and communications think tank Public Knowledge, says he's worried about the lack of government oversight on issues such as call quality.
"It's been this sort of, 'The Internet is magic and we don't want to look too closely at it,' " Feld says. "The problem is, it's not magic ... and when you just leave this stuff to its own devices, sometimes it breaks down."
The big test case may be AT&T. Last year, the company formally petitioned the FCC for permission to start transitioning away from traditional switched-circuit phone systems altogether and moving certain areas to all-Internet and wireless. The company says that it will offer high-speed Internet phone service or high-speed LTE wireless to 99 percent of its territory by 2014.
It's that final 1 percent that worries Feld. He says he has no illusions about preserving the old switched phone system, and he welcomes the prospect of better technologies.
"What we don't want to see, though, is a phone system that was the envy of the world [go] away, and [become] a system that works well if you're in the right place and you can pay for it, and works poorly if you're not," Feld says.
Feld uses a medical analogy to describe what our phone system is going through right now. He calls it "network neuropathy," a sort tingling sensation at the extremities, in the form of dropped calls and bad audio. He hopes it's just a passing symptom as the old phone system is abandoned for the new.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
America's traditional phone system is not as dependable as it used to be. With so many problems, last month the Federal Communications Commission - the FCC - told phone companies to start collecting statistics on calls that don't go through, or ones that break up.
Of course, these days, we have many communications options. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the death of the landline may come with a cost.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Dan Newhouse is a farmer in eastern Washington state. I reached him a few weeks ago for another story. But we spent the first few minutes talking about the stubborn hum on his home landline.
DAN NEWHOUSE: Anytime it rains, we wouldn't be able to have this conversation because water gets on the lines and it gets way worse.
KASTE: The repairmen come out, but they tell him that the wires are just old; and they're not about to be replaced.
NEWHOUSE: The last time, the pedestal down at the bottom of our driveway - somebody had hit it and knocked it over - they straightened it up and wrapped it with electrical tape, and that was their fix.
KASTE: America's traditional phone system was once the best in the world. Now, it's in decline. Rob Frieden is a professor of telecommunications and law at Penn State.
ROB FRIEDEN: The switches, the actual infrastructure, are reaching end of life. And sort of ironically, so too are the personnel, the engineers who have received training to maintain those expensive switches.
KASTE: Of course, these days, a lot fewer people pay for what the industry calls plain old telephone service. Frieden says the telecoms are urging people along to the new stuff: wireless and Internet-based-phones. Problem is there are still millions of people who want the dependability of traditional phones.
FRIEDEN: This is old-school. But there are plenty of instances where the cable goes out, the electricity goes out, and the phone network is there.
KASTE: That's because traditional phone lines have their own electricity and even battery power. And then, there's audio quality. On Internet phones, your conversation competes for bandwidth with your neighbor's Netflix and funny things can happen. Just listen to these dropouts while Frieden was talking to me.
FRIEDEN: The phone companies want other technologies so maybe they've already started the process of being a little less vigilant in terms of maintaining the infrastructure.
KASTE: The Internet-based phone in his campus office just wasn't playing nice with my Google voice, also on the Internet. The fact is, Internet phone service just isn't regulated the same way traditional phones are.
JOHN STEPHENSON: Just having rules around because they were how we did it back in a very different world doesn't make much sense.
KASTE: That's John Stephenson. He's with ALEC, that's the American Legislative Exchange Council. It fights for a smaller government and it's encouraged states to exempt Internet phone service from the traditional phone regulations. He says fewer rules will mean more investment in the new-fangled stuff.
STEPHENSON: We feel, based on our research and experience, that if we were to clear the underbrush, these rules written long before the Internet was even a word, there would be a lot more broadband deployed to the United States and things that are even better that we can't conceive of today.
KASTE: At the national level, AT&T wants FCC permission to start abandoning traditional phone circuitry altogether. Harold Feld is following this process for Public Knowledge, a nonprofit specializing in communications policy. He says he's all for new technologies.
HAROLD FELD: What we don't want to see, though, is a phone system that was the envy of the world goes away and it becomes a system that works well if you're in the right place and you can pay for it and works poorly if you're not.
KASTE: Feld uses a medical analogy to describe what's happening to our phone system right now. He calls it network neuropathy, a sort of tingling sensation of the extremities in the form of dropped calls and bad audio. He says he hopes it's just a passing symptom as we abandon the old phone system for the new. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.