Ask Hackaday: With Landline Use In Decline, What’s To Be Done With The Local Loop?

Walking is great exercise, but it’s good for the mind too: it gives one time to observe and to think. At least that’s what I do on my daily walks, and being me, what I usually observe and think about is the local infrastructure along my route. Recently, I was surprised to see a number of telephone company cabinets lying open next to the sidewalk. Usually when you see an open box, there’s a telephone tech right there, working on the system. But these were wide open and unattended, which I thought was unusual.

I, of course, took the opportunity to check out the contents of these pedestals in detail. Looking at the hundreds of pairs of brightly colored wire all neatly terminated and obviously installed and maintained at great expense, I was left wondering why someone would leave such a valuable asset exposed to the elements. With traditional POTS, or plain old telephone service, on the decline, the world may no longer have much use for the millions of miles of copper cable feeding back to telco central offices (COs) anymore. But there’s got to be something this once-vital infrastructure is still good for, leading me to ask: what’s to be done with the local loop?

Inside Plant, with a Side of BORSCHT

Like any industry that’s been around since before the previous turn of the century, the telephone industry is rife with jargon. Telcos refer to all the things they use to run their systems as their physical plant. If this brings to mind the image of a factory, that’s not far off: the switchgear, cables, and supporting equipment really are a huge machine, and initially, telcos are really just factories built to move sound from one place to another.

Telco physical plant equipment can be divided into two broad categories: the inside plant and the outside plant. The inside plant is, as the name implies, everything that resides under a roof. This includes the switchgear itself, the main distribution frames where the incoming local loop wires are connected, plus all the support gear for so-called BORSCHT functions, an acronym for:

  • Battery (nominal 48 VDC to power the local loop);
  • Overvoltage protection from surges on the local loop;
  • Ringing voltage (about 89 V RMS);
  • Signaling or Supervision, which detects on- or off-hook conditions at the subscriber end and decodes DTMF tones;
  • Coding, which provides support for digital encoding and decoding algorithms;
  • Hybrid, which transforms the two-wire local loop into a four-wire connection;
  • and Testing, which allows field techs to connect a subscriber directly to testing gear in the central office.

Things tend to change within the inside plant fairly rapidly as technology advances. For example, many COs started out filled with either step-by-step (SxS) or crossbar switches, with rack after rack filled with sparking, clacking relays and solenoids that connected one subscriber line to another within the exchange, or shipped it off to another exchange for connection to one of its subscribers. Later, electronic switches came in and replaced all that old gear, and change that was often performed so quickly that subscribers barely noticed the changeover.

Outside Plant

Outside plant refers to everything the telephone company installs outside the central office. If it’s strung up on poles, buried in the ground, or sitting on a tower on a mountaintop somewhere, it counts as outside plant.

The most obvious bit of outside plant is the miles and miles of wire that form the local loop. In the early days of telephone service, and probably clear up to at least the 1980s or early 1990s in North America, the local loop was exactly that — a single pair of copper conductors stretching from the main distribution frames in the central office to the demarcation point at the subscriber’s premises. When a phone  was taken off the hook, the loop was completed and the process of making or taking a call began.

A telco pedestal for a condo in my area. This example of telco outside plant has been open to the elements for weeks.

Like the inside plant, the local loop and the other components of the outside plant changed over the years, with additional equipment added to handle newer digital technologies, like integrated services digital network (ISDN) and digital subscriber line (DSL). But despite the changing technology, a lot of what the telephone companies did to upgrade their services was predicated on leveraging their most valuable asset — all those miles and miles of precious copper, carefully crafted into a massive network reaching nearly every address on the map.

Sadly, though, there’s only so far you can push 19th-century technology, and telephone companies, already with their backs against the walls, faced a double challenge starting in the early 2000s: the rise of the cell phone and the emergence of widespread broadband. No longer were people tied to a landline, when a cell phone could do the same job and more. And in those cases where cell coverage was poor, chances were good that a broadband connection could be leveraged with one of the new VOIP telephone services, piped into the subscriber’s premises either via a cable internet provider or, ironically, over a DSL connection.

Sign of the times: Ziply fiber is coming to town. Source: Ziply Fiber

But the surge in DSL connections was really a last hurrah for the copper local loop. Fixed landline subscriptions have fallen in the US since 2000 from nearly 200 million (about 70% of the population at the time) to only 116 million lines in 2018. People just don’t have a valid use case for a landline phone anymore. This explains the specifics of my observations during my morning walk: a few days ago, a cable construction crew showed up near one of the pedestals I found open and set up a signboard announcing the arrival of a new fiber-optic network by Ziply. It turns out that Ziply bought the operations and assets of Frontier Communications in my area back in May, and are investing $500 million to upgrade the network.

Your Turn

From what I’ve seen, Ziply is primarily interested in leveraging the rights-of-way of the outside plant they inherited from Frontier. Those few remaining landlines seem to be little more than a source of cash to finance the build-out of their new network. My question is: what’s to become of all those copper lines?

It seems a shame to just abandon such a valuable asset in place, but maybe it only seems valuable to someone who isn’t running a fiber-optic company. Perhaps all the copper will one day prove to be just a nuisance, something to suck up maintenance budget while returning little value. Maybe at that point it would make sense to scrap it — pull all those carefully installed and slavishly maintained cables off the poles and out of the conduits and sell it off for its scrap copper value.

Or is there perhaps another plan for such a seemingly valuable asset? Could copper networks still have a place in the communications ecosystem, one that takes advantage of their unique position of connecting virtually every home and business? We’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s to be done with the local loop, and we’d especially love to hear from any of the telco engineers who devoted their careers to building these amazing networks and keeping them alive. There have to be a ton of inside stories about the outside plant, and we’d appreciate you sharing them in the comments below.

90 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: With Landline Use In Decline, What’s To Be Done With The Local Loop?

      1. I recently viewed a classic mystery movie. One of the main plot elements, was a service that had a bunch of photograph players that were wired to businesses that subscribed. At the receiving end, there was a speaker and a phone. The customer would call in their requested song, and an attendant would load the phonograph player with that song. It functioned as a manually operated jute box.

      2. Reading about the Teleharmonium, it is reminiscent of the Optigan organ from the 70’s. It was an instrument that used an optical disk as its sound sources. It functioned like a sampling keyboard. It borrowed the idea of how sound tracks were done on movie film. There was a disk inside the organ, that had a series of concentric tracks. Each track played a note or even an accompaniment track playing a particular chord.

        1. The spec is actually 86v ac at the VMDF (Vertical Main Distributing Frame) protector block. If the loop was in spec (1600 ohms max) that provided enough current to operate up to 3 of the old style electromagnetic ringers. Ah, yes! The old days of POTS and PANS.

          Not an engineer, just an old 5-XBAR, #1ESS, #1AESS, #5ESS, DMS100 tech.

      1. In theory, allowing 40W of line losses, it would be possible to deliver up to 60W to a home using “line power” +/-190V.

        European and North American electrical safety standards, IEC 60950-21, IEC 60950-1 and Telcordia GR-1089-CORE have a +/-190VDC option that is used to power remote DSLAM electronics from the CO. Also called RFT-V circuits, the output power is limited to maximum 100VA per channel. Multiple channels can be combined (but must remain isolated from each other) where more power is required. RFT-V circuits are used where the access of the system is restricted to service personnel only, so only TRUNK lines that feed the remotes, not the actual distribution that cascades to homes. To avoid getting “buzzed” by surprise, the energized lines are kept in contiguous “binder groups” that are labelled as such.

        There are newer technologies such as VoltServer’s Digital Electricity that could guarantee SAFE energy delivery by ensuring no disturbance, or accidental touch would cause harm. But the circuit would probably shut down too often or be a nuisance because….

        The practical issue with the distribution lines is (as many have pointed out) that they can be in poor shape, or affected by rain, etc. Tracing a home’s pair is daunting as it swaps pairs in various cables and cross-connect boxes getting back to the CO. There are also devices such as “bridge taps” that must be removed. The high voltage circuits would have to be labelled. Mixing voice and high voltage is impractical… and attempting to cascade “binder groups” through multiple cables may require swapping and cleaning up over quite some distance.

        So there are potential use cases.. but usually fail the reliability or practical test.

        1. Since the article is talking about usage cases for defunct copper, that implies that voice (among other things) is coming in via another means so the only thing needing worry is power.

  1. ” People just don’t have a valid use case for a landline phone anymore.”

    Here in Southern California a valid case is that cellphone service dies more rapidly in a fire situation. Cell sites go offline due to lack of power or backup infrastructure, and the remaining sites are overloaded, but with less capacity. The local loop remains powered long after the utility power is out.

    For 911 calls, you *know* where the local loop terminates – for Cellphones, perhaps you know where the phone is, depending on whether you’ve got a good assisted GPS fix (which relies on data service from cellsite, which is the first to go in a power emergency) or whether there’s good time difference of arrival data from cell sites (assuming they even have that provisioned still). – for VOIP phones – kind of depends on who your VOIP carrier is.

    Sure, there are workarounds for a lot of this (backup generators, batteries, etc. to keep your cell phone charged, amateur radio, etc.)..

    But POTS is pretty darn simple and requires limited infrastructure to keep on working.

    1. Came here to exactly this. Jim’s right. But not just of because wild fire. We have earthquakes here in California too. I remember Loma Prieta (7.1) very well. Granted, cell service wasn’t as robust in ’89 as it is now, but, my cell phone wasn’t able to connect for a few weeks where as POTS was working within an hour or so. Spotty, but, working. We also were without electricity for the better part of a week (the Moss Landing power plant had a transformer explode), so, recharging cell phones would have been impossible.

    2. Having been in telecomm for 40 years I can tell you that the POTS line is far from simple. and except for the most archaic install, there’s a lot of hardware behind any of your old POTS lines. Let me explain….

      It’s true that many years ago, a dedicated copper wire pair ran all the way from you CO switch to your house. It was that way at least until the 1980s. But then the digital revolution happened. And now more likely than not, if you still have a POTS line that copper only runs from a nearby service pedestal that houses powered equipment not so different from modern VOIP equipment. In other words there’s likely not more than a few hundred yards of wire between a digital source and the POTS phone in your house.

  2. I am in a place where fiber is deployed so it is now impossible to subscribe to DSL or good old analog phone.
    But they keep existing local loop, and it is forbidden to mess with the wires or remove it, so the fiber is laid alongside copper wire (both aerials).

  3. Here in the great white North of Canukistan, we just let them rot.

    Load coils, bandwidth limiters, paper sleeving and lead jackets. It’s all good for the earth!

    Yummy Yummy delicious lead!

    If you don’t either subscribe to expensive cable service, or very expensive wireless service, you can get up to “fax” level quality from whatever lines have not rotted out, all for a small monthly fee, expensive long distance, etc.

    1. I find that incredible, given the scrap value of copper & lead – in the UK the pikeys were pulling cables out of the ground to sell for scrap, got so bad it led to a change in the law for scrap merchants.

      1. While such elements do exist in the ground, they are not necessarily harmful where they naturally occur. Though, they can be harmful in other locations, or if they are in greater concentrations. Lead that is moved from where it is mined, and then relocated in great concentrations over a well used for drinking water, could be a big problem.

        However, such concerns really are only for a few materials.

  4. I kept my old pots phone going for awhile as I thought when the power would go out I could still depend on it working. Found out though when the power did go out that the phone company had been somewhat lax about maintaining standby power – their focus had shifted to fiber. So switched the phone line to a voip service on the fiber that I already had running. Now I can see that possibly the economics of the new 5G wireless may end up being a strong competitor to wired internet access – at least to the home. That may be the reason that has caused Verizon has stopped building out FIOS. As for all those copper lines across the world – they will be scrapped and probably cause copper mining to be un-economical for awhile……

    1. IFF (old math talk for If and only if) your land line is 100% on copper all the way back to the central office, your phone is powered by one of the original UPS’s, the massive -48V battery strings in the CO “floated” by either utility power or standby diesel. It is actually very difficult to power off a CO. HOWEVER, as far back as the 1970’s the RBOCs were implementing what are still referred to as “pair gain” systems. You could put up to 96 subscribers on two or four pairs of copper cable using T1 carrier technology hence “pair gain”. Over time those copper pairs carrying the T1 signals morphed into fiber fed into a mux inside that roadside cabinet referred to as a remote terminal. NONE of those pairgain systems are powered by the CO, so when commercial power feeding the remote terminal dies, and the emergency gel cells go flat, all of the phones on that pairgain system go dead.

      1. @DDS said: “You could put up to 96 subscribers on two or four pairs of copper cable using T1 carrier technology…”

        Transmission System 1 (T1), was introduced in 1962 in the Bell System, and could transmit up to 24 telephone calls simultaneously over a single transmission line of copper wire.[1] So 96 channels divided by 24 channels per standard T1 line equals 4 lines required. The next step up is the rarely used T2 (6.312 Mbit/s) with 96 channels.

        1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-carrier

      2. In the dark ages I learned Unix in one of the plants that made the Western Electric SLC-96 (“the slick ninety six”). I think I remember it standing in two full-size 19″ equipment racks and enclosures. That would be around ’84. It was supposedly a Big Deal, but I was too busy playing a Unix flavor that didn’t even have vi yet.

  5. I’m in a major metro area, on an island of DSL. We are surrounded by fiber but ATT refuses to run it to my street. We have no other providers available and are capped speeds up to 50mbs but these are seldom reaiized for over a minute or two without having drops that last 10 seconds or more. I have never been able to play an online video game. I read articles about rural areas getting high speed internet and wonder, when, if ever, my street of a dozen homes will ever get it.

        1. I am hoping StarLink is somewhat affordable…

          We can only get 1Mbit Comcast (advertised, but much slower), or Cellular internet (Much faster 10-20Mbit, but HotSpots are data limited).

          This is in “down state” rural Illinois.

      1. That depends, here in Central Europe European Union has big infrastructure projects to lift poverty and providing cheap fiber to poor villages in bumfucknowhere in Carpathian mountains is part of it. So until cities upgraded there where situatuions where vilages in deep woods had better connection than me right in the middle of city centre.

    1. And I have had Fiber for 20 years now, living 10km outside of the city in a rural part, 10 years ago they uppgraded to 1Gb, of course I have to pay for that, but $14 a month is reasonable for a connection where I can stream full HD 24/7 without a data cap. Sometimes I don’t get mor then 800Mb or so, but I can survive that

    2. I feel for you pmichaelh. I am only 3 miles outside of a town with a major hwy. DSL at 0.9MBps. Comcast stops .5 miles from my house, and refuses to run a half mile of cable to service 10-20 houses.

      1. You cant talk to neighbours and fork in for private line for that 0.5mile? My parents did that whole street gathered and decided to instal own network because telephone company had old commie times wires and declined to upgrade.

    3. Don’t you worry, it is the same story for us in the country, but just flopped. A lucky few get fiber, but usually only if you are along the trunk line they were already planning on running between towns. When we started seeing more and more fiber trucks in the area we got real excited, but alas, it was for the next county road north of us. So we wait with our DSL. I’ve got PingPlotter traces of our ping going over 1000ms at random points during the day, but at least a dozen times every day. Customer service won’t do anything about it…

  6. They’re “abandoning it in place” here in the suburbs of Boston. A couple of years ago, I received a letter giving me a date by which my copper line would be disconnected unless I switched to fiber. So, switch I did (I had an ulterior motive). Kept the fiber connection for a month, then transferred my wired home phones to an OOMA box. The Verizon fiber remains, along with their ONT, just in case I decide to switch to FIOS from COMCAST.

    What’s to be done with the copper plant? I presume someone will eventually recycle it for the copper (legally or illegally). AFAIK, it has already been replaced with overhead fiber, at least in my town. This was done when FIOS came in (I assume they used the FIOS profits to “fiber” the whole town). I cannot believe there’s much call for wired phone service at this point, what with cell and VOIP.

    1. I have heard that Verizon is “cherry picking” which exchanges get fiber and which do not. They do have a statutory requirement in every town to provide phone service UNTIL they can get approval from the PUC to abandon the copper plant. The cherry picking appears to involve a formula which takes into account the presence of a competing broadband provider, the population density and total number of potential broadband customers. I’ve also heard that the fiber rollout is currently paused (so no new exchanges being “fibered”) due to economic conditions.

      Ultimately, the plan (as has happened in other states) appears to be to dump the remaining copper-only exchanges (those considered not profitable to convert to fiber) on some 3rd grade provider like Clearpoint and thus improve the balance sheet by eliminating support expenses for unprofitable exchanges. ‘twould suck to live in one of those, but pretty much the entire western half of the state will fall into that category, I would assume.

      1. Yeah, when Verizon dumped the entirety of Northern New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) because we weren’t quite profitable enough for them, they really showed us what a bunch of lowlife scumbags they are.

        Here in central NH we have 100 mbps Atlantic Broadband, and we don’t miss Verizon one bit.

      2. I live just south of Boston in one of the towns in MA that does not have FIOS. Our only options for internet are Comcast or DSL. My household uses an OBI 200 and Google Voice to replace landline and believe I’ll ever pay for landline service again. Vz was let off the hook (pardon the pun) too easily. Phone / internet carriers should be required to provide equitable throughout the state.

  7. AT&T keeps telling me I have fiber in my neighborhood, but I only have copper lines (2-50 pair) installed sometime after 1947 when the block was built. AFAIK, they can piggyback the data on the old coppers as long as they aren’t shorted which most are nowadays in my ‘hood (skin effect transmission)

  8. Maintaining these is *really* expensive, so not much to do with them. Copper gets corroded, signal drops, bandwidth drops, sometimes to the point that DSL doesn’t get a synchronization anymore.

    The monthly average cost for telephone connectivity is between several euros and ten euros per line. Keeping everything running event at a small scale is not going to be easy or cheap.

    In France, the incumbent (i.e. historical) telco Orange (formerly France Télécom) tries to not maintain copper lines (they have a monopole on them and are legally required to maintain them as a consequence), most probably both to save money and to push people towards fiber (either through their subscriber offerings or through competitors because they lend their fibers to these competitors).

    Copper is expensive. Best thing to do would be recycling (as copper thieves prove).

    1. “The monthly average cost for telephone connectivity is between several euros and ten euros per line. Keeping everything running event at a small scale is not going to be easy or cheap.”

      Pfft! Considering what AT&T was charging me for a landline, they were easily making their money back.

  9. Here in the Netherlands they don’t put cables in the ground anymore, but just plastic tubes. And I think they’ve done so for some 20 years or so. And then they pull whatever sort of cable through it that is in fashion at that moment. Thinner cables are pushed with compressed air.

    The biggest problem is tax. Local governments used to receive tax money for cables in the ground, and there was some controversy whether empty tubes count as taxable cables.

    This is of course a big deal, as opening up the ground to lay those tubes is a costly exercise, and when the ground is open, it’s easy to put 5 or so tubes in the hole for some redundancy and future proofing, but nobody wants to pay tax for empty tubes for multiple years.

    I assume there are plenty of smart people to go around, and they use this technique worldwide.
    It started a long time ago. There was a time that they used electric current to heat the core of the big coax trunk cables, then pulled out the copper core and widened he insides with a hot plug pulled though the cable. Making an empty tube this way is probably still done every now and then for existing cables, if this makes it possible to lay new cables without opening the ground, but once you need to open the ground, then laying empty tubes and filling them later is a much more logical choice.

    These days there are also techniques to lay underground cables and pipes with barely opening up the ground. They loosen up the soil with water jets and then push a pipe through the mud and remove the mud by letting it flow through the new pipe. It’s “just” horizontal drilling. I’ve seen 40cm diameter sewer pipes been laid this way, and the ground was only opened up every 150meters or so. It’s probably easy to find some youtube vids of this or similar techniques.

      1. Yea when having to run cable under a drive way just dig a hole on each side and run the hose into pvc pipe and it makes its own tunnel as it goes. Of course it’s easiest where rocks or roots arent too bad. Its super easy when its just sand and can be done by hand, just keep adding in pvc sections until it reaches other side. Run the fish tape through and pull your cable. Have also used same method to make a water well, of course need a supply of water on site first. Just keep pushing down and adding pipe until you get to the depth you need, its kind of amazing the different layers of soil that come out. Way easier than pounding a pipe into the ground. Just don’t let the water stop too long or it is hell to get it started again!

    1. It would be fun to try that in New Hampshire. You’d be lucky to go 10 feet without hitting a rock the size of your head. When 500 feet of new sewer pipe was put in about 7 years ago, they had to remove several 4 foot diameter boulders.

  10. “Walking is great exercise, but it’s good for the mind too: it gives one time to observe and to think.”

    Not for everyone that is, most people I see during my daily walk think and observe less than their dog. Their gaze is fixed to the screen of the phone. Which also explains why the landlines are no priority for the phone company anymore.

    And no, my smart? phone is almost always in its cradle in the hallway, in the same place where the old phone used to be.

  11. My parents keep a copper POTS land line connected to an old ma bell rotary phone at their house (in addition to an answering machine). We keep a similar setup at a rental property as well. Both are hurricane prone areas.

    When they evacuate and a storm blows through and we can’t ping the remote sites, we start dialing the phone number. If it rings and the answering machine picks up, the building is there and has power. If it just rings and rings and rings, the building is there, but has no power. If it doesn’t ring at all, it means either the pole is down, or the building is gone. In 50 years, we’ve never had that last case happen.

  12. They get quite a lot of money from that business but for consumer subscriptions, you need to also add the connectivity at the various levels and I guess they make even more with these.

  13. My city, they’ve ended up half unusable, due to history and various phases of infrastructure installation. It’s a bit weird since city was originally several townships, that all had own exchanges. So they are the hubs for all the local copper, rat and pigeon infested derelicts now they are no longer manned. Now, seems the “middle aged” neighbourhoods got new copper just before the amalgamation, but it was I think in a “phones for everyone” push so they did it as cheap as possible, it’s all only a foot or less down in the topsoil and goes crossways across yards etc, should be shortest path I guess, but it’s seems a bit haphazard. It was probably fine for 20 years. Meanwhile the new exchange got put in the new/old downtown of the new city which is offset to the north west of everything else. Then the old exchanges got trunked to this one. So these middle aged neighbourhoods ended up with like 7 km copper doglegs to the exchange only 3 miles away. So by the digital era they were getting mis-sold higher speed DSL than the copper would support, since half the city is twice as far down the copper as distance from main exchange suggested. Now, also by turn of millennium people have no frigging patience for telco wire locates and any time someone digs one up putting in a patio they just get twisted back together and buried again. Along with all the scrapes and cuts from ppl putting in posts and even plant stakes and swingball posts etc, the copper has gotten in such a nasty shape that it barely supports voice. However, the older neighbourhoods ended up next to the new exchange and got wired direct to it, and newer neighbourhoods had decent conduit trunking and straight path to new exchange, so they get reasonable performance out of it. Anyway, so I think half the city was getting to forecast EOL just as fibre etc came in and despite it supposedly being last mile for the fibre at first, they didn’t seem to do anything to it. Now they’re supposed to have fibre to the home on the poles, so doubt anything will get done. The new and old neighbourhoods probably have 20-30 years left in their copper, but it’s toast where it was just renewed before all the local changes some 40-50 years back.

    Anyway, I last cared about it over a decade back when I was peed off with the arrogance of “the” cable co and went on DSL for a bit, and every winter it dropped a mbps until I was getting 1.2 and they basically refused to do anything, while bombarding me with ads for fibre which they didn’t even roll to my exact area for another 5 years. The landline was crackly and “the” phone company as well as not fixing the line began dicking around with extra charges, spurious billings, and would not shift my plan to another despite multiple requests. So I got totally fracked off with them and cut them off altogether, and will not do business with them or subsidiaries ever again. It being a bit hobsons choice I’m back on cable through a 3rd party reseller, don’t wanna deal with “the” cable co’s arrogance and billing “mistakes” etc ever again either.

  14. Where I live in Sweden Fiber is installed all over the place, at a rather steep price to the end user. (The equivalent to about 1.5-3 thousand USD depending on area)

    But in a lot of places, the old copper network seldom travels more than 300 meters before it arrives in a fairly decent sized telecoms cabinet. (exception is out in the countryside) And considering how these cabinets seldom have ice forming on them, then I would hazer to guess that they contain a DSLAM or two.

    Downside is though that I haven’t seen any xDSL connection here in Sweden that is offering more than 12 Mb/s.
    And that is rather weird, considering that better xDLS technology has existed for almost 20 years now…

    I don’t know why the telecommunications provider doesn’t upgrade their equipment. I suspect that they have just looked at the numbers seeing that installing fiber gives them more profit compared to upgrading their xDSL systems. Even if upgrading the xDSL system would be very cheap all things considered. (Even if all the xDSL subscribers payed for it, it would only cost around 30-100 USD per connection….)

    For other countries were a xDSL line needs to travel 1-5 km before reaching the local “office”, then I can understand that fiber is the way more attractive offer, since xDSL would be fairly abhorrent at those distances. But here in Sweden, the network seems to have been built/modified with xDSL service in mind.

    And xDSL is rather reasonable in its capabilities, for example VDSL2 gets up to 200 Mb/s and for a 300 meter distance, that would still be 100+ Mb/s. Quite the upgrade from the current 5-8 Mb/s people get. (Okay, fiber here currently offers up to about 10 Gb/s, but most people don’t subscribe to more than 100 Mb/s, and are usually forced to upgrade to 200 Mb/s due to ISPs cutting their lower plans.)

    There is also VDSL2+ at 300 Mb/s, and even G.fast at 1 Gb/s.

    Though, is there a need for faster internet is also a question.
    After all, a 4K video stream at 20Mb/s has sufficiently little compression artifacts that one needs to pause and search for them up close.
    A 100 Mb/s connection can download today’s “crazy” sized games in fairly short amounts of time. (After all, one can download 40 GB of content every hour with that connection speed.) (for games though, latency is the bigger issue.)
    And surfing the webb is not a huge difference when using a 10 Mb/s connection compared to a 100 Mb/s. And at times, one is actually limited by the website’s own servers regardless….

    And to a degree, xDSL is fiber. Just to the node. And honestly, the expensive fiber can be used more efficiently in this use case, since the xDSL host can use 40+ Gb/s QSFP modules. And with 160 xDSL subscribers on it, then each subscriber can get 500 Mb/s to themselves. But realistically, a company would overprovision their backend, since everyone doesn’t use all their bandwidth at once. (And even Fiber to the home would have overprovisioning in the ISP’s datacenter. So there is little difference.)

    I myself think that fiber to the node is the cost effective future when it comes to homes. (Offices and companies can have dedicated fiber to themselves if they desire.)
    Though, dragging the copper/fiber in pipe would be preferred compared to just digging it into the ground. Since then, maintenance is easier. (just pull it out.) And upgrades are easier too, since one can change it for something better. Maybe xDSL gets replaced by “Ethernet”, after all, 4 twisted pairs is faster than 1, and those that wants fiber can get that too, the local network cabinet can have some extra backhaul lines for these subscribers that needs to have silly amounts of bandwidth.

    FttN also has the advantage of better redundancy in case the fiber line gets interrupted. (after all, it is the fiber that potentially goes many km, so it has a higher risk of getting accidentally dug up or torn down, depending on how it is routed.)

    1. The telecom network is an ex state-owned company become a limited company (Televerket -> Telia AB) which still exerts monopoly control over the local loop. They control what happens over POTS and coaxial cable to provide the infrastructure for competing internet providers using the existing public network. Telia held such high interconnection charges that the competition was pushed to laying their own fiber instead.

      So basically the reason they’re not using xDSL is because Telia is too cheap to install the backhaul bandwidth to deal with it, and they have no commercial customers who would use the infrastructure since they priced themselves out of the market and fiber is just so much better.

      1. That tends to be what happens when a state own company gets privatized.

        If the company has the country’s whole network infrastructure, then the philosophy can quickly go from “lets provide everyone with good service” as seen by how well made the actual xDSL network is implemented.

        To: “Lets not invest in this and use it as a cash cow!” when there suddenly is shareholders with little interest in anything other than profits.

        Though, the same has been largely seen with other aspects of the Swedish infrastructure, and not to get political, but personally, I would find it better if it just remained owned and operated by the government, since they at least focused on providing a good solution.

        Also wouldn’t agree that fiber is “just so much better.”, since it is a lot more expensive, and for the last half km copper can get up to sufficient speeds to cover future needs for what most people could foreseeably need. Keeping some extra fiber lines for FttH for those that really needs the insane bandwidth fiber provides can still get it if they want. (currently talking in excess of 500 Mb/s here, and there is little reason why xDSL couldn’t use an Ethernet cable and get up towards 5 Gb/s for a half km. I doubt that people will need more than 1 Gb/s for the next decade or two.)

        Just like MP in a camera, or bitrate in an audio file, eventually, it isn’t more than a gimmick, a faster network connection does have the advantage of being able to download larger files in the same time frame, but how often is that actually needed? And is it worth while investing in the more costly infrastructure if it will have little actual need.

        FttN has major cost advantages, and if the node has two separate backhaul lines, then it is also somewhat protected from getting accidentally dug up. (Or rather, it doesn’t matter much if it were get damaged, the other connection will still be there and the network operator will get warned about the lost connection.) Redundancy is a nice thing, and FttH doesn’t provide that, so that is a benefit of FttN, and depending on where one lives, this can be a huge life improvement compared to just raw speed.

        Though, even with fiber, FttN is better, since then we can use a far cheaper fiber from the node to the customers premise. Since there isn’t a need to go super far. This gives the upside of galvanic isolation, nice during a thunder storm, but also the issue of dirt ingress at the cable ends deteriorating signal quality, after all, people’s homes are rarely cleanly kept datacenters, and even datacenters struggles with keeping fiber clean for internal runs.

        Though, as I have now outlined twice, there is pros and cons to both solutions. And a hybrid approach is likely the best for everyone. Keep bulk customers on FttN since it is more cost effective and can provide more than adequate bandwidth for most people (talking .2-1 Gb/s with current gen xDSL), and provide a few FttH lines at the local node for those who desire more bandwidth than what the copper can provide, these people can then have a fiber installed this relatively short distance. And it would be easy to install if all underground cables are in pipes, or strung on poles for those who likes having them torn down by inadequately careful truck drivers… And the ones with FttH can still have their FttN as a backup, or additional bandwidth, providing that redundancy once more. (Or the Node could just have a set of SFP+ ports and/or a few QSFP.)

        1. >“Lets not invest in this and use it as a cash cow!”

          Nah. It’s a game of hot potato. This is because the state owned company was running under political pressure to implement all the political grandstanding and heavily subsidized, so they overbuilt the infrastructure and extended it to places where it wasn’t needed or economical. This is due to drives like, “99% of households should have broadband by tomorrow!” made back in the day.

          Then it starts to cost too much money, so the government sells the infrastructure to a private company to get rid of the responsibility and blame of doing a poor job, AND then it regulates the private company to keep the same level of service and reach with an infrastructure that isn’t profitable.

          So the prices go up and the infrastructure stagnates at the lack of funds to upgrade, while competitors build a parallel infrastructure that eventually eclipses the old one and kills it off.

  15. I’m in the Atlanta area. In my neighborhood, AT&T has reworked the local loop into something that they insist is not DSL, but they’re a little vague on what, exactly, it is. What I do know is that it can be set to between 100 and 1000 MBPS, it has symmetric upload and download speeds, plugs into an RJ14 jack like a normal phone line, uses twisted pair instead of coax, and you can’t run normal telephone service over it. It appears the lines may be run to some sort of router at the entrance to the subdivision which may connect this to fiber or other technologies.

  16. Copper in the neighborhood is still useful and can run pretty fast at short distances. If we build out fiber – working towards the neighborhood. And place DSLAM’s and other equipment closer to the user – the investment in copper can be leveraged quite well without “Excess Construction” fees.

    The last mile is important, but a provider’s infrastructure must keep up too.

    Here is a suburb of Minneapolis, MN. I am limited to DSL or broadband cable TV – even though AT&T ran fiber through the city, and through each neighborhood 15 years ago. My 7 up 20 down DSL has never failed (Five router reboots in 25 years), and is fast enough for my needs. (internet, and Netflix). BUT! ….

    Now, with people staying home, – the problem is that my carrier (Centurylink) does not have adequate capacity in its network. Congestion is causing serious slowdowns and stoppages at peak times. ( BTW… Centurylink also limits the number of connections to certain content providers if they don’t pay up, according to a friend who works at their CO.)

  17. Something not mentioned yet is the heavy hand of the government regulators. In the USA, those would be the FCC and the local public service commission or whatever it might be called in your state. Your local wire line provider, formerly known as and RBOC (Regional Bell Operating Company) owns a regulated entity that is responsible for providing service in their area that meets government specs, such as supplying dialtone within half a second after you pick up the receiver to make a call. They would all like to ditch the old POTS network. No one has made a nickel on POTS, since the 1970’s, or on long distance since MCI won the GSA contract to provide same to the US Government for $0.05 per minute. in addition, they are now having to support the old copper based wireline network, and the modern fiber based data transport network, plus in most cases, a parallel cell phone network. Most , if not all, of them would love to ditch the copper, but can’t until they prove to FCC’s satisfaction that the new stuff is as reliable as the old stuff. That won’t happen. Tthey cant prove anything of the kind because it isn’t and probably never will be. So they do what Verizon did when it started selling copper facilities to Frontier et al. They even sold some of their their FIOS networks. They’re more or less desperate to get out from under the old FCC/PSC straight jacket and make money as re-invented broadband providers.

    1. “They cant prove anything of the kind because it isn’t and probably never will be.”

      Including a powered pair of wires would have at least been a good start when the fiber was put in, but hey progress (aka better than what was before) is as much about keeping all the pennies to oneself than it is an incremental step towards the future.

    2. What’s Print up to these days? That’s a company with a curious history. Southern Pacific Railroad installed a fiber optic communications signaling system alongside their train tracks, replacing the old copper wire that had been used to operate lights, switches etc. Then they realized that was using a tiny fraction of the capability of fiber.

      So they installed telco equipment and set up shop as a telephone company. But to expand beyond those who could connect to the Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telephony system, they had to be able to interface with the Bell System incumbent exchange carriers for long distance calls.

      The big guys said no. Southern Pacific sued and won. Thus was born Sprint, eventually spun off as a separate company. Dunno if the railroad then rented or leased capacity on the fiber they used to own to do the signaling and control they installed the fiber for.

      So if you’ve ever felt that Sprint was railroading you, now you know why. ;)

    1. Wouldn’t datacasting (piggybacking on over the air TV or radio broadcasts) be more effective and reliable, not to mention way cheaper to implement? In fact, Europeans have had this for decades in the form of Teletext.

  18. I’ve been in the U.S. industry for decades now (sadly) for both incumbents and startups.

    “Perhaps all the copper will one day prove to be just a nuisance, something to suck up maintenance budget while returning little value. Maybe at that point it would make sense to scrap it — pull all those carefully installed and slavishly maintained cables off the poles and out of the conduits and sell it off for its scrap copper value.”

    Copper has been a nuisance for many, many years. It is difficult to maintain and expensive and time consuming. If you recall what a T1 was, you know it barely exists today. Several providers no longer offer it and those that do offer the true 4-wire version price so you would never want it. While those that do at decent prices are doing it via fiber with a T1 handoff.

    Copper is going away. Telecoms will not even bother to rip it out. Too expensive. Maybe….. maybe they will give some subcontractor to do it own their own. But what a risk to the infrastructure it is near and a legal/regulatory mess. Not worth the time from a business standpoint.

    1. Insulated copper wire, especially small diameter stuff like telco wire, brings a quite low scrap price. Stripping the bigger wire can be worth the effort to elevate it to #1 Bright Copper but the small telco wire (or fine stranded wire) will only go up to #2 grade.

      The problem is the large surface area to mass ratio. Small wire oxidizes more of its mass away when being melted so the metal recovery is less than with thicker wire, unless the foundry uses a closed smelter that’s filled with gas that won’t combine with the hot copper. ‘Course that adds expense so the small wire is still worth less.

  19. The author states, “People just don’t have a valid use case for a landline phone anymore.” So I’d like to ask a question of the knowledgeable people here: I have hung onto my copper wire service despite (sometimes irritating) pressure from SBC – my provider here in Illinois. The reason? My perhaps erroneous belief that when (not if) China massively hacks/takes down much of the internet in the event of a war (say, over Taiwan), people with VOIP home phone service will not be able to make or receive calls since those phone rely on the internet. (Same thing with a more localized disaster such as hurricane, earthquake, etc.) So if I need to call 911 or have other urgent or non-urgent calls to make, I can still do that over copper wire. Comments? Are my assumptions deeply flawed? Is my copper wire service dependent somehow on internet connectivity downstream such that I wouldn’t be able to make calls regardless?

    1. Nah you’re 100% correct. No internet means no VoIP and considering cell towers use VoIP to carry the calls, you’d be SOL (see the FCC report on the Centurylink outage that was caused by 4 erroneous packets that brought emergency services and a few other cell services to a halt). I have family with a copper line through ATT (from what I see, ATT has no intent on shutting it down) and with a copper line from them, you get free dial-up (to a certain point). So I have my Sega Dreamcast with a mouse and keyboard there and a web browser CD juuuuuuust in case I ever need to do anything in a situation like this. When we had tornados a while back that wiped power for a week and a half, this was super instrumental in not being out of the loop as far as news and email went. Yes, I have email set up on a Dreamcast. Don’t judge me.

    2. Yes, your assumption is flawed by the fact that the telephone companies have largely moved to IP based trunking and transport in their backbone networks so the only analog part in your case is likely the last mile.

  20. The phone system where I grew up would let you dial * and 3 random digits and you’d tap into someone’s call. They couldn’t hear you, but you could hear both sides of their call. It was entertainment for a bored 12 year old and got to hear some stuff I probably shouldn’t have LOL! It took a lot of number combos to get someone actually on a call, but time was nothing then. The city had their own power company and Telco it didn’t work anywhere else I tried it, so must have been something with the system they used or they didn’t set it up right. Friday and Saturday nights were Primetime for spicy phone calls LOL!

  21. With dwindling landline use the copper distribution network will be uneconomical to repair and maintain. It will be abandoned in place. Its not very useful for much. Long time telecom engineer.

  22. I just love how everyone assumes that cellphone coverage is universal !
    I live in a rural area and can only get a connection if I walk to the end of our driveway and hold the phone over my head.
    The landline works fine as long as it doesn’t rain much.
    Wireless is available if you don’t mind something only slightly faster than dialup (and it’s not storming.)
    Satellite internet is slow and expensive and only works if it’s not raining or snowing.
    I’m hoping that Musk’s system works better !!!

  23. Here me out. Emergency backup power for keeping fiber optic transceivers running during disasters/outages. Since we are all digital now, why not put those lines to good use. Or build-up some long distance communications for a sort of radio network or something…. But the power is there, people could at least use that to convert to usable power to power or charge emergency lighting or communication devices..

    1. If you go back perhaps 4+ years, you were only permitted to connect equipment owned by the phone company to the phone lines, and the actual installation had to be done by them. The reason is that they needed to control how much current people were drawing over the phone lines. There was a “ring equivalent” rating for each device that might be wired into the phone line system. I’ve read that a phone consumes approx 20ma when in use. But, that doesn’t say how much current is available to draw.

      I don’t know what made them change. Certainly electronics eventually required a lot less electricity than a physical bell ringer. But, you were still able to buy phones with physical bells. I wonder what would have happened if you plugged too many of those phones into the same phone line? Perhaps by that time they had installed some sort of circuit breaker. If there isn’t a circuit breaker on the POTS line at each house, then it would certainly be very tempting for people to try to operate too many things off their phone lines.

      Think of what would happen if your neighbor could not call 911 if all they had was a POTS phone line? You might be responsible for someone’s death.

    2. POTS telephone equipment is still highly regulated. You have a limit to the amount of DC current a phone can draw when on hook (hung up), the amount of AC (ring) current it can draw and the amount of DC current it can draw when off hook (in use).

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