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The last days of urban copper

Copper phone networks have served New Zealand for over 100 years. They won’t be around much longer, at least in cities and towns.

Spark has started to call time on urban copper. It says it plans to retire PSTN in Devonport and Miramar by Christmas. That move will affect around 1000 customers.

It is the first step in Spark’s plan to move customers from copper on to either fixed wireless connections or fibre. In the companies words, these are “the modern alternatives”.

Plain old telephone service


PSTN is the public switched telephone network. That’s the engineers name for the old copper-based telephone system. At times people in the business call it Pots: plain old telephone service.

The key word in that phrase is old.

Spark says PSTN is now at the end of its life and needs replacing. It is now 17 years since equipment makers stopped making PSTN hardware. Spark says it is getting harder to find people with the skills to maintain the technology.

Old folk reluctant


Older customers continue to love Pots. There’s a reluctance to move from a technology they have known for decades.

It is no long essential.

It is possible to deliver services resembling PSTN voice calling on fixed wireless and fibre connections.

The alternatives do not work in a power outage. You can’t, say, make a 111 call if there’s no power. This worries planners and officials, but there are few homes without mobile phones.

Alarms


There are difficulties with security or medical alarms designed for copper network technology. Again, there are modern alternatives in almost every case.

Nevertheless Spark says it will not move anyone who needs special hardware until it has found a replacement.

Getting rid of urban copper will simplify telecommunications and lower costs. We won’t have to run two networks in parallel. Companies like Spark can streamline support operations and reduce costs.

No longer controversial


A move from copper networks may have been controversial a few years ago. Today he majority of customers in cities and towns now use fibre or fixed wireless instead.

Fibre uptake is now 60 percent or better in urban areas. There are 180,000 homes or business using fixed wireless connections. Meanwhile there are more mobile phones in use than there are people.

There are problems in areas not yet covered by fibre. Removing urban copper will put further pressure on the government and fibre companies to extend the reach of the UFB network to these places.

Fibre and beyond


Fibre is now scheduled to reach 87 percent of New Zealand by 2022. It is realistic to stretch fibre coverage up to around 90 percent or a little beyond.

Where that isn’t possible, mobile coverage and Wireless Internet Service Providers can fill in the gaps.

Compared with fibre or wireless, copper is expensive to maintain. It is more expensive to maintain in the rural areas where it is likely to remain.

As the number of lines falls, the support cost per line will rocket. There will come a point where the remaining copper network is economically unsustainable.

The flip side of this is that reducing those costs should free up money to pay for rural network upgrades.

Spark not hanging around


Spark is moving early. The Commerce Commission has published a code for dealing with 111 calls after copper is switched off. This has to be in force by the end of next year. Once that is done Chorus will be allowed to stop offering copper services where fibre is available.

Chorus continues to own and operate the copper networks. They will remain in the ground for now even in the areas where Spark has withdrawn services.

By running pilot programmes in Devonport and Miramar Spark will be able to better understand how decommissioning PSTN might work. The company expects to spend years moving off the services across the rest of the country.

This story has been updated (24-07-20) to reflect out-of-date numbers and timings.

The last days of urban copper was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

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