What We Talk About When We Talk About “Tech Transitions”

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Over the coming weeks, we will feature a series of blog posts about the tech transitions. In our first post, Meredith Filak Rose introduces the tech transitions and explains what they mean for you.


If you follow tech policy, you’ve probably seen the summer’s hottest buzz-phrase: “the tech transition.” This opaque moniker (like most tech policy talk) doesn’t explain much about the underlying topic.

So what is the tech transition?

Simple answer: It’s about your phone. But it’s also about so, so much more. Including whether you can count on the phone network to work when you need it.

If you’re like most Americans over the age of 30, you probably grew up with a traditional, copper-wire landline phone. It had two cords: one from the wall to the base unit, and one connecting the base to the handset. There was no power plug; you were limited in movement by the radius of the curly cord; and, except in the absolute worst storms, you could expect to hear a dial tone.

Chances are, you don’t have a phone like that anymore. Why? We’ve changed the technology we put in phones, yes, but we’ve also changed the technology we put in the ground.

From its inception up until the mid-2000s, telephone traffic ran over copper wire. Copper is a kind of jack-of-all-trades of connectivity: it carries its own electricity, obviating the need for a separate power cord to power old land-line phones; maintains pretty good sound quality over long distances; and can carry a substantial amount of voice traffic. Thick trunks of bundled copper ran underneath streets and spiraled out into nearly every home in America, connecting the nation in a vast web of phone access.

Eventually, people developed new systems that relied on this vast, incredibly useful copper web. Home alarm systems plugged directly into the copper line leading from a house, to send a signal directly to the alarm company in the event of a break-in; so did the fire alarms in school buildings. Medical services like Life Alert created mechanisms to tap into the copper and contact emergency dispatch directly if the device’s owner needed help. Fax machines sent data over the copper, and early Internet services such as dial-up and DSL used the copper to carry and route Internet traffic.  

However, copper has limits. Although it carries voice calls well, it isn’t as good at carrying the heavy data generated by Internet traffic. It can be damaged by water and corroded relatively easily. And while it carried enough electricity to power an on-the-wall copper phone, it doesn’t carry enough to power all the bells and whistles on newer devices.

In the mid-2000s, companies began replacing copper lines with fiber optic cable. Fiber has a number of advantages over copper: it can carry more data—including vast amounts of Internet traffic—and isn’t bothered by water.

But it’s not a perfect substitute. Fiber can’t carry its own power, and so all phones on a fiber line need to have separate power plugs—and can die in a power outage. The lines themselves have to be powered, typically by external generators that are susceptible to being knocked out in a bad storm.

Furthermore, in some areas, it’s cheaper for companies to let their copper connections rot, and, rather than replace them with fiber, push customers onto “fixed wireless” services such as VoiceLink—which carry their own set of problems. Some of those innovative systems that plugged directly into the copper network (home alarms, medical alerts, some fax machines, etc.) don’t even work on the new system.

This switch—taking out our old system and replacing it with the new—is what we mean when we talk about the “tech transition.” It raises plenty of questions about what to do with legacy systems, and even more that would take pages to cover on their own, such as: who’s responsible for providing backup power if the fiber system goes down? How much notice are consumers entitled to before their provider switches to fiber, and what should that notice look like? What responsibilities do the carriers have? What kinds of features does the new fiber network need to replicate from the copper network to be considered “comparable” as a replacement? Are we really just “upgrading” the phone network, or are we replacing it with something completely new?

All of these questions are playing out at the FCC right now. Over the coming weeks, Public Knowledge will be posting a series of blog posts detailing, in plain language, the issues at stake in the tech transition. We hope you’ll be here to join us, and to jump in the discussion. 

Image credit: Flickr user Eje Gustafsson

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