Heralding the Death of the PSTN

June 26, 2008 by Garrett Smith

Doug Mohney over at FierceVoIP…. who consistently put out some of the most interesting and relevant content in the industry….has a story this morning concerning the impending demise of the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network….for the uninitiated, think telephone poles and wires).

Doug makes reference to another opinion piece from Daniel Berninger at GigaOm that offers additional data which points to a decline in the relevancy of the PSTN in a world that increasingly communicates over various IP based media.

Whether you agree or disagree with their consensus, it’s hard to argue that SIP continues to make strides and is slowly pulling the telecommunications industry behind it. I think we can all peer into the future and clearly see a world where voice and data are homogeneous and ubiquitous. How long it will take to realize that vision is nearly impossible to predict.

In the telecommunications industry at large, I see themes common to other pressing environmental and socio-economic issues that we have to deal with sooner or later. Like alternatives to fossil fuels, we know IP communications is a good thing for us, that it makes sense, and offers a spectrum of benefits and advantages versus our current incumbent technology…..But it’s not that simple. Hydrogen powered cars look great, where do I sign? What, there’s no place to fuel up? Hmmm, that’s no good.

The mass adoption of a product or service is governed, to a certain extent, by the effectiveness and efficiency of its distribution network. Companies like Verizon (FiOS), Comcast, Level 3, Covad, Bandwidth.com and others like them are the change agents who are doing the dirty work necessary to usher in our telephony renaissance. First adopters, god bless you! When we finally get there, perhaps we should name a bridge after SunRocket, or a park after Jangl….for they are the martyrs. The lack of “broadband” quality data connectivity outside of the largest, most financially viable market geographies is also a major hurdle. The Net Neutrality debate also has very large implications.

The PSTN has been diagnosed with a terminal condition, it could be a year, 5, 10 or 20…we just don’t know. We can recommend to the PSTN some measures that it may take to prolong its longevity, but it probably won’t take our advice to heart, and may only speed its own demise.


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  • Brian

    VoIP is tied to Internet Connectivity, which must come first.

    We still have people using DIAL-UP for Internet connectivity, and PARTY LINES for calls. My own dad lives in a place where you can’t get CABLE TV.

    It’s taking DECADES for ISDN drops to be installed within 10 miles of a capable CO.

    I had dark fiber on the telephone pole behind my house, ten YEARS ago, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Can I get networking from it yet? No. Bureaucracy and other insanity prevents it. Verizon FIOS isn’t “in my neighborhood.”

    I can barely get Fiber connectivity to my business, right by San Jose Airport, without spending huge sums of money for the loop.

    The infrastructure for Internet connectivity is a long way off, and in turn, so is VoIP. Unless the infrastructure delivery improves by a hundredfold, we are talking multiple centuries for AT&T/Sprint/Comcast to get the connection to every home.

    Parting shot:
    I have Comcast Cable, I am technologially savvy – and I still have a land line. Why? Because I’ve seen Comcast’s service level for Internet. It sucks in triplicate. At the billing level, I’ve been billed for service I never got. At the Tech Level, I’ve had trucks roll to my house no less than FIVE times in 1.5 years, that’s once every 3 months. At the Support level, they’ve misdiagnosed the problems, stepped on each other’s work, and a total failure on communicating between each other.

    If AT&T provided this level of service at the start, we’d still be using quill pens and parchment.

  • Cory Andrews

    Brian – I agree with all of your points. It would seem that some form of widely deployed, readily available wireless data connectivity would help matters, and would force the hand of the incumbent providers to offer more reliable and cost effective services in order to compete. I’ve been watching WiMAX develop, tough to tell how that is going to shake out.

  • Fred

    We’ve have wireless internet where I live in a Manila suburb. It’s from a company called SmartBro. Their broadband service is relatively slow (up to 384 kbps) compared to cable or DSL speeds. but it’s good enough for VOIP calls which I often make.
    Wireless internet, which uses existing mobile phone cell sites like SmartBro might be one answer to the “last mile” connectivity isuess that are holding back the widespread deployment of broadband. Maybe the death of PSTN won’t be that far out.

    Oh by the way, here in the Philippines, SmartBro is a subsidiary of the local telco. So while PSTN might one day be gone, the AT&Ts, Sprints, and Comcasts that own them will likely live on.

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