The Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) in Transition

A workshop on the PSTN in Transition was held Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at the Federal Communication Commission, 9am Eastern. A replay is available on line. A second, all day workshop is scheduled for December 14, 2011.
This IP Telephony transition will have great impact on the world of toll free numbers and services. Local callers are the clients of our toll free services, and their interface limits functionality. Most still use touch-tone phones despite having an on-premise VOIP.
It was striking at first that this FCC meeting on the PSTN in Transition would open with public safety, disability access, and rural access issues, but once the presentations began it all became clear.
Indeed, it was explicitly stated: " The primary mission of the PSTN is first response, not IP Telephony," so let's awake from this vision of sugar plum fairies dancing on our enum handsets anytime soon. Clearly, it's the steak, not the sizzle that will slowly drive the transition from PSTN to an all IP-based phone system. 
The thinking by public safety experts is that this "Next Generation" will be wireless, although the current cellular networks are not hardened nor configured for high reliability. Experts envision a fully interoperable "LTE over IP network" where first responders will retain robust access during emergencies while other calls -- our calls, for example -- will be, well, "dropped on the floor."
From the disabilities perspective, not so quick. Wireline holds significant advantages over wireless and VOIP, like voice quality, high reliability, no battery charging, ready dial-tone, access to audio directory assistance, tactile keys, and a well-understood user interface. 
A move to IP Telephony would be the single biggest change since the transition away from live operators in the 1920's, a time when the phone company came around to schools to teach kids how to dial phones.
Julius Genachowski, Chairman, FCC, reminded the group that we don't want to lose any of the benefits the PSTN currently offer. Further, he noted, that it was the "universialization" of the telephone system that drove economic success in the 50's, 60's and beyond and that this next transition will not move seamlessly without planning, planning which has barley begun.
What's new this time is the IP transition will not be ushered in by a monolithic phone company, but by private competitors with proprietary interests. To say this will be like herding cats would be kind. This will be more like herding wolves and sheep and then leaving them alone-- somebody's going to have a bad night!
While not as sexy, it is public safety issues along with disability and rural access that will drive the timeframe required to deploy an IP-based telephone network, not deadlines and dreams of visual telephony dancing in our heads.
The good news is that the vision is clear and shared by all; we will be moving to an IP based system.