AT&T recently announced the two markets where it will conduct trials under FCC supervision to shut down the old, copper-wire phone lines that hark back to the era of operators on roller skates and replace those old lines with digital fiber Internet Protocol (IP) technology.
These market tests have been highly anticipated for a long time. From AT&T’s perspective, most people use modern digital IP technology today, anyway. The old legacy lines, says “T,” are only there because of outdated regulations.
As AT&T put it in their blog post the day they announced the test markets:
“Although many might not even be aware they have done so, a significant majority of Americans have already transitioned away from circuit-switched telephony. In the 22 states where AT&T is the legacy ‘phone company,’ more than 70 percent of residential consumers have abandoned legacy phone service choosing instead to go with wireless services or VoIP services. And the number of housing units still connected to circuit-switched services provided by the legacy phone company has dropped below 20 percent in some areas.”
The American Association of Retired Persons, consumer advocate Public Knowledge, and others, warn that consumer disruption, particularly among elderly and lower-income households, could result from an IP transition. To support this claim, they point to Verizon’s troubled rollout of fixed wireless service on Fire Island after Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the telecommunications infrastructure there.
Who is right here? Time will tell. But AT&T’s choice of West Delray Beach, Fla., presents all of us with an opportunity to witness, up close, an IP transition trial among senior citizens.
This is a community where a sizable percentage of the population speaks Yiddish as a first language. Let me say that again: Yiddish as a first language.
To appreciate what this means, keep in mind that Yiddish is a dying language, almost exterminated by Hitler when he murdered most of Europe’s Jewish population in World War II. To speak Yiddish as a first language, let’s just say you had to be born a long time ago. In my family, the last person to speak Yiddish as a first language was my great-grandfather, Adolph Hirschberg, who came to the U.S. from Germany with his family before the turn of the 20th century.
(Note: We named our second son “Ari” after him, keeping the “A” but avoiding the “Adolph,” for obvious reasons).
So, just nosh on Yiddischite West Delray Beach for a moment. Elderly population? Check.
I am pretty familiar with this group. These are my people. If the soup is too cold, they will tell you. If you’re mumbling, they will tell you. And if their phone service stinks, believe me … they will tell you.
But I think something unexpected could happen in West Delray Beach. For many of the elderly who live there and around the country, the Internet and digital technology are far from a foreign, scary, invasive beast of modernity upending everything near and dear to their hearts. To the contrary, the elderly are adopting digital communications at a rapid clip.
Facebook reports that one of its fastest-growing categories of users is grandparents who want to keep in touch with their grandchildren. My Brooklyn-born, 30-year-South-Florida-resident father-in-law, who is in his late 70s, just happens to be the person we all turn to for technology questions. (Imagine calling your IT department and hearing Walter Matthau on the other end).
Given this counterintuitive phenomenon, is it possible that elderly consumers could reap benefits from an IP transition, embracing rather than scorning the digital revolution in telephony?
To be sure, if people experience worse telephone service after the IP transition than what they had before the transition, it would be a disaster. Hence the FCC made clear that 911 service and availability standards must be maintained. Beyond that, however, we just might see elderly people energized by the prospect of better digital communications supporting not just their phone calls but their Web surfing, Twitter posting, Facebook friending and Netflix watching.
As someone in West Delray might put it, “ton nisht meynen yener ikh bin narish, mine kinder.” Or, put another way, “I’m no shnook!”
David Goodfriend is an adjunct professor at Georgetown and George Washington law schools, and a senior fellow at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. He practices telecommunications law and policy in Washington, D.C., and includes eBay, Dish Network and the USTelecom Association among his clients.