AT&T and Verizon Phase Out Copper “Lifelines”

by Jordan Richardson on November 12, 2012

It’s a plan that’s been in the works for some time now: the phasing out of copper wires. Copper wiring has served as the electrical conductor in wiring ever since the invention of the electromagnet and the telegraph. When the telephone came along, copper wiring served an instrumental role. It’s still the conductor of choice in a number of applications, from power generation to many forms of circuitry, but the wireless industry is quickly finding ways to phase it out.

With our so-called wireless world taking hold, some have rightly begun to question “the disaster preparedness of our mobile devices.” And with the superstorm Sandy making news, many have looked at the phasing out of copper as something that deserves another glance.

It’s true that copper has been the favoured ductile metal of thieves and that replacing the stuff after it gets stolen can be costly. It’s also true that copper networks are not necessarily more reliable, as they are also susceptible to outages and trees falling on lines. They can even be damaged by heavy flooding, something Verizon claims its newer fibre optic cables are less prone to.

But AT&T’s announcement on November 7 that they were decommissioning the technology behind copper wiring and moving on to fibre optics has some thinking twice. “This storm [Sandy] highlighted that you might want to think twice about removing copper because it provides an alternative source of access,” said Christopher White, attorney with the New Jersey Division of the Rate Counsel.

The phone companies disagree, noting that fibre optics are more reliable overall. “Generally speaking, this storm presented challenges that go beyond the typical reliability question,” Verizon spokesman John Bonomo said. “In the long run, fibre is a more reliable technology.”

It’s also true that the copper lines were more expensive to maintain, which makes the new fibre optics approach more cost-effective and more profitable for companies like AT&T and Verizon. That may prove to be more of a prime mover on the subject than any other such business about contingency plans and the like.

The trouble here is that storms like Sandy can produce unforeseen circumstances, something Bonomo refers to as “beyond the typical reliability question.” With 25 percent of cell towers down across ten states in the aftermath of Sandy, New Yorkers and others turned to payphones. But where will that technology be in five years?

These questions, ones that go “beyond the typical reliability question(s),” need answers. Storms like Sandy are only going to become more common and more dangerous, leading to more of a reliance on “the old” than we may realize. When “the newer and faster” wireless technology crashes down around us, what’s next?

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