Rich Warren: Don't fret over landline decision

Rich Warren: Don't fret over landline decision

Some readers beseech our representatives to relegalize POTS. We're not talking Colorado here. POTS, a long-standing acronym for Plain Old Telephone Service, even is used by telecommunications engineers. Recently, Illinois allowed AT&T, the largest provider of wired telephone service in the state, to discontinue POTS lines, ultimately migrating subscribers to more contemporary technology.

The POTS landline connected us with copper wires through a local central switch for over a century. Speaking of jobs lost to automation, placing a call 100 years ago required thousands of human operators. As late as the early 1960s, placing a long-distance call required dialing 211 (subsequently zero) for a long-distance operator.

As an aside, in the days of Ma Bell, Illinois enjoyed most of Ma Bell's most advanced communication technologies. Champaign-Urbana served as a proving ground for AT&T's experimental electronic services, such as three-party calling, call waiting and call forwarding.

Many people panicked upon hearing that AT&T would no longer offer POTS service in Illinois, as part of a trend sweeping the country. In some states, Verizon, a major POTS provider, is taking a more aggressive stance in discontinuing POTS service. Here in Illinois, AT&T assures us that a gorilla will not show up at your front door and rip out all of your copper phone wiring. POTS will die a natural death.

Most Illinois residents already communicate via cellphones and/or a newer, more advanced wired technology called VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). AT&T provides both, and depending on your location, calling habits and patterns, cellular or VOIP could be cheaper than POTS.

When I moved to rural Champaign County, GTE, which became Verizon, whose local service then was sold to Frontier, shocked me with what it charged for a single POTS line, especially with the added charges to phone people in Champaign-Urbana.

POTS provided benefits neither cellular nor VOIP guarantee. POTS delivered true two-way conversations, called full duplex, without the "walkie-talkie" effect of one person cutting off the other when speaking. It never dropped calls. Perhaps most importantly to many people, POTS reliability meant your phone would work 99.9999 (probably I've left off a few decimal places) percent of the time. If the electric power failed, the dial tone continued. The phone companies powered POTS with a long-lasting independent power supply from the central office.

VOIP is very cost-effective and offers many advanced features, assuming you already have an internet connection. If you don't wish to use VOIP from AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Mediacom, Frontier and dozens of other companies offer independent VOIP service for $10 to $30 a month, depending upon the features you choose. Generally, no matter how much you pay, long distance is free. VOIP provides good sound quality, often better than POTS. VOIP can be deployed around the house with existing wired and cordless extension phones, just like POTS. Vonage is the best known and often considered the most reliable independent VOIP company.

If you already own your own modem, Wi-Fi router and computer, various companies offer VOIP solutions that cost less than $8 a month. Most come with caveats. Read the fine print and online reviews.

Some cellular carriers, especially Verizon, offer whole house phone systems based on combining cellular and internet. Thus, when you're at home, you can use existing extension phones just like with POTS. Verizon's Wireless Home Phone hardware costs $30 with a two-year contract. You can add it to your existing Verizon cell plan or as a stand-alone without a separate cell phone. Verizon promises two days of operation if the AC power fails.

If you want to increase the reliability of alternative phone systems, including your cellphone, go online or to one of the big box stores and buy a 200-watt minimum uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for about $100. This should power your internet and VOIP hardware or recharge your cellphone for at least a week.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Topics (2):Internet, Technology