AT&T network chief Chris Sambar (pictured) outlined the operator’s case for retiring copper lines in some US states and replacing them with fibre during a forum the company hosted in Washington DC.

Sambar, head of network for AT&T, stated the regulatory framework for retiring copper lines varies across the US. The operator applied for a waiver in February that would allow it to stop servicing copper-based POTS in California, resulting in opposition from residents.

AT&T is a carrier of last resort (COLR) in states such as California, which means it must get permission to retire its copper-based landline service. On 10 May, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a proposal rejecting AT&T’s request to withdraw as the COLR. That proposal will be voted on by the commission at a meeting on 20 June.

AT&T, Verizon and additional operators have retired copper lines across several states, but Sambar noted there is a web of regulatory challenges that providers are dealing with.

“In the telecom space, you’ve got a really old regulatory regime that was founded back when the government was subsidising and helping us build these networks,” he explained. “But those old regulatory rules aren’t serving the public good anymore”.

Sambar noted some of the copper lines are 100 years old. Each copper line sheathed in paper is susceptible to moisture issues. Whereas it takes AT&T six to eight hours to fix a fibre-related issue, it can take several weeks to dry out the copper lines. In addition to paper, some of the copper lines are encased in lead.

He stated it can cost more than $3 billion a year to maintain the copper lines.

While copper lines account for just 5 per cent of networks in the US, Sambar noted a single copper line must be maintained all the way out to a customer’s location. There could be thousands of copper lines sheathed at a central office, which need to be maintained to serve the customer who is miles away with the single line.

The copper lines also require massive switches in central offices to provide voice services, which Sambar explained use eight to ten times the amount of energy as a server.

AT&T could replace the switches with two servers in a central office, which would cut down on the energy cost, but the servers will need software, installation and rewriting all the systems that were written in the 1960s or 1970s. All of which will cost more than keeping the switches.

“The payback period is 15, 16, 18 years long so it’s not economical to do it,” Sambar said.

Failed incentives
The executive explained AT&T has tried to incentivise POTS users by offering them free iPhones and a free year of service, but to no avail.

“It’s amazing that people want to hold on to the old stuff,” he stated.

He noted Apple wasn’t required to keep building the first computer it launched in 1984 and Amazon was allowed to shutter its brick-and-mortar stores in favour of putting books online.

“We spend billions of dollars on an old copper network. We would love to take that billions of dollars and allocate it over to fibre to build even more fibre than we’re building today,” he stated.