Jonathan Spalter

The Golden State Can Do Better Than Copper Landlines

This article originally ran in Capitol Weekly.

You may have seen the viral video. How do you build an escape room for your kids? Put them in a room with a rotary phone, analog television, and directions written in cursive, and ask them to figure out how to get out. It is true that innovation marches ever forward, and, as it does, items once central to our lives fade from them as consumers embrace more effective approaches.

From cassette tapes to CDs and DVDs, to YouTube, this is a familiar positive story. Today, the march of progress has finally come for the old copper networks that long ago served as the primary conduit for landlines. High-speed broadband emerged from the pandemic as an essential bridge to economic opportunity, health care, education, and more. Companies and the country are working to close the digital divide and connect everyone, everywhere, to what these networks make possible.

Yet outdated regulations written before the internet existed continue to require broadband companies to prop up old copper telephone networks, even as consumers abandon them for the new horizons, capabilities, and possibilities of broadband.

So far, over twenty states have met the moment—acting to remove these antiquated rules and fully embrace their broadband-fueled future while ensuring customers have continuity of service. Rather than requiring companies to prop up the modern equivalent of VCRs and fax machines, they are focused on spurring essential technology transition.

Now it’s California’s turn as the state’s Public Utilities Commission takes up the question of whether and how to allow companies to retire their old copper networks. Almost all “home phones” today are already powered by broadband. They ring like a regular phone, offer voicemail, and connect reliably to 911. The only change is that broadband companies have more flexibility to upgrade their networks and customers would have more choice.

As someone who lived and worked in the Bay Area’s innovation economy through California’s rise to global tech supremacy, it’s jarring to see the state pulling up the rear on this issue. The hesitation appears to be rooted in a well-intentioned—but misplaced—concern that some might lose important emergency services. And surveys show Americans vastly overestimate the number of landline-only households—despite the fact that 60% of us say we don’t even know a single person who has one. In truth, just two percent of the country relies solely on copper wire landlines for its communications. Consumers have overwhelmingly moved on – including the more than 3 in 4 households today that are wireless-only—making their calls, including 911, via their smartphones.

California has the opportunity today to model reform that works for everyone—advancing the broadband future while protecting everyone’s access to landlines and 911. This has always been the golden rule of the Golden State’s global technology leadership: You don’t stand in the way of progress; you make sure everyone can come along. Californians need that same leadership today.