Verizon, the country's second-largest landline phone company, is taking the lead by replacing phone lines with wireless alternatives. But competitors, including AT&T, have made it clear they want to follow. It's the beginning of a technological turning point, representing the receding tide of copper-wire landlines that have been used since commercial service began in 1877.
The number of U.S. phone lines peaked at 186 million in 2000. Since then, more than 100 million copper lines have already been disconnected, according to industry trade group US Telecom. The lines have been supplanted by cellphones and Internet-based phone service offered by way of cable television and fiber optic wiring. Just one in four U.S. households will have a copper phone line at the end of this year, according to estimates from US Telecom. AT&T would like to turn off its network of copper landlines by the end of the decade.
For most people, the phone line's demise will have little impact. But there are pockets of the country where copper lines are still critical for residents. As a result, state regulators and consumer advocates are increasingly concerned about how the transition will unfold.
"The real question is not: Are we going to keep copper forever? The real question is: How are we going to handle this transition?" says Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based group that advocates for public access to the Internet and other communications technologies.
The elderly and people in rural areas, where cell coverage may be poor or nonexistent, will be most affected by disappearing phone lines, Feld says. "Are we going to handle this transition in a way that recognizes that we have vulnerable populations here?"
Verizon says replacing the lines just doesn't make economic sense. When they were originally laid down, the phone was the only two-way telecommunications service available in the home, and the company could look forward to decades of use out of each line. Now, it would cost Verizon hundreds of dollars per home to rewire a neighborhood, but less than a quarter of customers are likely to sign up for phone service and many of those drop it after a year or two.
"If we fixed the copper, there's a good likelihood people wouldn't even use it," says Tom Maguire, Verizon's senior vice president of operations support.
The FCC put together a formal task force on the issue in December, after AT&T put in its request, and has asked the company for more details. FCC general counsel Sean Lev thinks phone companies will continue to use landlines for five to 10 years, suggesting that regulators have some time to figure out how to tackle the issue.
AT&T would like to have all its landline phone equipment turned off by 2020. Verizon's Maguire envisions a gradual phaseout, starting right now.