Washington (AFP) - America's plain old telephone network is rapidly being overtaken by new technology, putting US regulators in a quandary over how to manage the final stages of transformation.
Though the timing remains unclear, the impact of change and what it means for roughly 100 million Americans who remain reliant on the dated but still-functional system of copper wires and switching stations is up for debate.
The Federal Communications Commission is working toward drafting rules in January to formalize the IP transition -- switching communications systems to Internet protocol.
And while FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hails the technological advance, he has also spoken of maintaining the "set of values" that was used to ensure America's universal phone service.
But some argue the government should step aside and allow the marketplace to keep moving toward digital standards, given that many consumers already use voice over Internet (VoIP) lines, mobile phones or various Web-based chat systems such as Skype instead of traditional telephone service.
"Almost everyone will be off this network in the next four years. It is a dead model walking," said Scott Cleland, of the research and consulting firm Precursor LLC, noting that three quarters of the transition is done.
Cleland, a former White House telecom policy adviser, said that even if people wanted to keep the old system, "they are not making the switches anymore for this. And the engineers they need to keep it alive are retiring."