In what may be a preview of what will happen in the United States, the Australian telecommunications giant Telstra late last month released its plan to bring a close to the old telephone world. Telstra announced it will decommission its copper customer access network and stop offering fixed line telephone service to retail customers after July 1, 2018.
In the United States, the FCC has been asked by one of its advisory panels to force telephone companies to come up with the same kind of plan. Any such effort is likely to have a big impact on U.S. companies in the next few years. Telstra's plan is in response to an Australian law that mandated "structural separation" - that is, splitting the part of the company that runs the telephone physical infrastructure from the parts that provide services over it. A high-level summary of the plan can be found here.
This separation will result in Telstra moving to provide services over broadband networks run by others as such networks become available. A month before Telstra released its transition plan, the FCC Technology Advisory Council (TAC) recommended that the FCC take steps to expedite a transition away from the traditional telephone network with a target date of 2018.
The TAC's reason for the recommendation was the strong move away from the traditional telephone network, particularly to mobile-only. The TAC reported that already a quarter of U.S. consumers 18 years old and older have forsaken landlines for a wireless-only life. In addition, by 2014, halfway towards the 2018 target, there will be nearly as many VoIP lines as land lines (32 million vs. 42 million). The TAC recommends that the FCC start planning now for, as well as expediting, the end of the traditional telephone world. The recommendations assume that the move away from the traditional telephony will be towards VoIP and mobile phones, many of which will support VoIP.
What will this mean to you? At home, it will likely mean that you will have a stronger reason to join the cell phone-only migration. In most parts of the country there is competition in the cell phone business, unlike in the high-speed Internet business, so prices will generally be kept more in check. But not everyone is comfortable with relying on a cell phone for emergency service, especially if they tend to forget to charge it. Others like the feel of a desk phone. There will be many VoIP providers if you are one of these types but you will have to have a high-speed Internet service for them to work well.
It will be a bit more complicated at work. While some companies have decided to drop employee desk phones that decision is not yet a common phenomenon. Your company should already be starting to think about the options if it wants to retain desk phones for employees.
Companies that have PBXs should be able to get a VoIP adapter and VoIP trunk service, though if you rely on the telephone company you may be in for some disruption. But maybe you will be retired or have moved elsewhere by then.
Disclaimer: Harvard has a lot of desk phones but I have no idea what the future plans are for them, so the above observations are my own.