AT&T wants trials in Florida, Alabama for shift away from traditional phone service

The carrier is seeking FCC approval to run tests in an Alabama town and a Florida suburb

A rural Alabama town and a suburban area of Florida may be on the cutting edge of a historic shift away from traditional circuit-switched phone service, if AT&T wins approval to run trials in those areas.

The carrier plans to test a transition from its circuit-switched TDM (time-division multiplexing) phone network to wireless and Internet Protocol services in Carbon Hill, Alabama, and West Delray Beach, Florida. It will need FCC approval to begin the trials.

AT&T and other incumbent wireline carriers are still required to provide traditional TDM phone service even though many U.S. residents no longer use it. They want to move to alternative services over the IP-based wired and wireless networks they are building now and eliminate the cost of maintaining the old networks. AT&T wants to complete its transition by 2020.

The trials would take several years and would be only one step toward phasing out TDM, but AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said last year that the carrier was anxious to get approval to start them. On Friday, AT&T announced where it wants to run those experiments. Carbon Hill is a town of about 2,000 in northwestern Alabama with a coal-mining history, and West Delray Beach is a suburban area on the Atlantic coast of southern Florida near Palm Beach.

For the trials, AT&T wants to switch its customers from TDM services to its U-Verse wireline voice and Internet offerings, or to wireless home phone and data services offered through AT&T Mobility. The wireless services would serve subscribers who live outside the reach of the U-Verse network. The old copper networks will remain in place throughout the trials. The purpose of the trials, which will be conducted under FCC supervision, is to identify the technical, operational and logistical raised by the transition.

AT&T says 70 percent of its residential customers have dropped traditional phone service for VoIP (voice over IP) or only using wireless. In some areas of the 22 states where AT&T is the incumbent carrier, less than 20 percent of households are still connected to the traditional circuit-switched services, the company said.

Verizon Communications has also tried to move away from TDM services. After Hurricane Sandy heavily damaged parts of the New York and New Jersey shorelines in 2012, Verizon sought to offer residents a wireless voice service called VoiceLink rather than replace damaged copper phone lines. Hundreds of customers complained, saying VoiceLink couldn't deliver Internet service or work with fax machines or some alarm systems.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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