Mobile phones are probably the best example of the concept known as “leapfrogging,” whereby communities with slower technological development can skip entire generations of often costly hardware and infrastructure innovations and implement newer standards that are cheaper and more convenient. It costs a lot less to build a cell-phone tower than it does to lay wire down to every residential address, for example, so peoples of the “developing” world can bypass that bit and move directly into mobile technology.
What’s somewhat less talked about are the costs involved in maintaining those outdated technologies once newer ones take them over. According to a report produced by the Internet Innovation Alliance (more on them in a moment), only 5% of Americans use “POTS” (“Plain Old Telephone Service”) exclusively, compared to the rest of us who use a combination of landlines, wireless, and VoIP (think Skype or services like it). If we take those numbers at face value, then it looks like a no-brainer: let’s get rid of landlines and sell all the copper to China.
Wait a tick, says Forbes. First of all, the Internet Innovation Alliance receives an “undisclosed amount” of funding from AT&T, which could see a massive windfall in the event that landlines were to disappear. Second, the 5% figure mentioned above is fantastically misleading. And third, the same companies that want to do away with the expenses associated with landlines don’t really want to pony up for the accompanying upgrade in cellular services, which could rise as high as 350 billion dollars.
There’s a lesson from Hurricane Sandy in all of this. Part of the crippling economic damage wrought upon Fire Island included the copper wiring that delivered phone and DSL connections to local residents. Verizon initially opted to replace traditional POTS infrastructure with a service called Voice Link which, unfortunately, can’t handle fax, modem, alarm systems, or broadband data. After (and only after) a rather loud and rather predictable hue and cry from the residents who, like the rest of us, really like to have access to the internet, Verizon agreed to implement FTTH (“Fiber to the Home” or fiber optic cables).
It’s of course worth having a discussion about our telecommunications infrastructure, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that if somebody tries to sell you something as both cheap and easy, it’s probably neither.