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FCC votes to begin testing an overhaul of US phone system

Citing the "Internet Revolution," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announces a series of experiments aimed at replacing the country's aging analog transmission infrastructure with an updated IP-based system.

The country's traditional copper wire telephone networks could soon go the way of payphones -- becoming nearly obsolete.

The Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted on Thursday to launch a series of trials to investigate how best to update the nation's telephone system. The idea is to replace the system's traditional phone lines with networks that are based on Internet Protocol.

Phone providers like AT&T and Verizon have been pushing the FCC to begin experiments on the transition to an IP-based system and will likely be involved in the testing. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has also been vocal in his support of an updated network and has emphasized that the tests don't involve new technology, but rather technology already in use.

"Our communications are rapidly transitioning to IP-networks -- and that's a good thing," Wheeler said in a statement on Thursday. "The move from the circuit-switched networks of Alexander Graham Bell to the new networks of the Internet Revolution is all around us -- with expanded deployment of fiber, with new forms of wireless, with bonded copper and coaxial cable. These transitions -- plural -- are a good thing because IP networks are more efficient, which can enable better products, lower prices, and massive benefits for consumers."

The idea of an overhaul of the telephone system has been in the works for awhile now. In November, Wheeler expressed his support for the upcoming testing.

While it appears the government might back a change in the system, it won't happen overnight. Some worry that people with disabilities and those living in rural areas could be technologically left out with an update. While many consumers already make phone calls on the Internet using voice over IP, which transmits large amounts of data in packet form, much of the nation's telephone infrastructure still employs less-efficient analog technology.

The FCC said the tests will be voluntary and will cover areas with various population densities, topologies, and meteorological conditions. Part of the mandate is that no person be left without communication services.

"This pilot program will help us learn how fiber might be deployed where it is not now deployed; how anchor institutions -- including schools and libraries -- can harness demand for the greater good of an entire community; and how new forms of wireless can reach deep into the interior of rural America," Wheeler said.

Proposals for the experiments are due February 20th and the FCC plans to make final decisions on which projects to select in May.