POTS May Be Put Out to Pasture

This past December, the FCC began a legal process that if successful will lead to the demise of plain old telephone service (POTS). This has paradigm-shifting and potentially catastrophic implications for our industry.

According to government document DA 09-2517, “Comment Sought on Transition From Circuit-Switched Network to All IP Network,” the FCC is seeking input from the public. “In the spirit of understanding the scope and breadth of the policy issues associated with this transition, we seek public comment to identify the relevant policy questions that a NOI (Notice of Inquiry) on this topic should raise in order to assist the Commission in considering how best to monitor and plan for this transition,” reads the document.

In response to this request for comment, AT&T, formerly SBC Global, a former Bell company, suggested that it’s not a matter of “if” POTS should be phased out, but a matter of “when.” AT&T officials have asked the FCC to establish a definite timetable for the end of POTS. This will enable the telecommunications giant to plan ahead for that day.

This month, we’ll take a look at what two life-safety professionals think about the planned phase-out of POTS. We’ll also examine the pros and cons associated with it. In addition, we’ll look at what one industry organization is doing to slow or stop the process.

Concern Over POTS Demise Grows
As word about the FCC’s study on the demise of POTS has spread, many within the fire and security industry have come forward to voice their concern (see sidebar). The reason is an overwhelming majority of alarm panels, both fire and intrusion, rely on today’s public switched telephone network (PSTN) for reliable signal transport to central monitoring stations.

“From a professional standpoint, there are many thousands of alarm panels out there that depend on POTS to communicate in a low-cost, reliable manner. I believe the elimination of this proven technology is intended to increase the revenues of the giant telecommunications industry,” says Rick Alvarez, president of Nova Security Systems Inc. of Fullerton, Calif. “The elimination of POTS will force everyone to purchase new products and charge more for services that not all people need or want. From a technology standpoint, to be limited to only one form of communication is a problem that in order to overcome will take more dollars from the consumer.”

According to Mike Baker of Gladstone, Ore.-based Michael Baker & Associates, “DACTs [digital alarm communicator transmitters] are required to be connected to the PSTN as defined by NFPA 72, Chapter 3 — not VoIP and not fiber [FIOS]. So once the option to make this connection is gone, DACTs are not permitted to be used.”

He adds that code does not allow the use of “a dongle to fool the DACT into thinking that it’s being provided with 48VDC and a digital dial tone.” For example, when communication depends on IP technology for primary or back-up signal transmission, an add-on module is usually required. This IP communicator is designed to convert analog data to digital, thereby linking alarm panels to central station receivers over a broadband connection.

This conversion is typically performed internal to the alarm panel and not by way of the onboard DACT. Today, this provides greater redundancy because there are two signal paths to the central station. However, if the FCC and AT&T are successful, the POTS part of this equation will go away at some point in the near future.

Why IP May Not Be Enough
As far as IP is concerned, connectivity can be provided by DSL (digital subscriber line) or a cable-TV service provider such as Warner Cable’s Road Runner. What this means is critical alarm signals must travel through the Internet, and we all know this method of connectivity is not without problems.

“The U.S. Department of Labor reports that for the fifth consecutive year the most common disruption to business was the loss of broadband Internet connection, with 39 percent of businesses reporting some kind of failure. In addition, the report concludes that long-term failure could be catastrophic,” says Brian Bradshaw, author of Internet Reliability “Most Common Disruption” to Business, HDTV Offers New Threat (www.ezinearticles.com).

According to Bradshaw, the requirement for effective communication in a business environment “includes credit card transactions, training and other mission-critical functions.” Probably one of the most critical functions of all, however, is fire alarm functions, which require a reliable means of communication between premises and the supervising or central station facility.

The primary reason for concern here is not that Internet communication isn’t possible, but whether it’s a reliable means of signal transport, especially since it may be the sole means of communication nationally. The Internet and all its derivatives is still essentially under development. The idea of narrowing our choices to only one — the Internet — is somewhat frightening to many veterans in the security and life-safety markets, including this writer.

It would be nice if we make the FCC and Congress aware of this old, reliable adage and keep POTS in the process, but this simply will not happen. Telephone companies that qualify for “utility” status see an all-IP switched network as a moneymaker, and it most likely is. We mustn’t forget the use of PSTN is slowly dwindling as costs come down and consumer use advances.

Next month, we’ll continue this discussion by examining fire code requirements and other technology issues as it relates to the elimination of POTS.

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