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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Spark says not to worry

20 April 2017

If you're an Xtra customer or user of the Spark mobile phone service I'm sure you've already learned that this is a company which can really screw things up from time to time.

Whether it's yet another episode in the endless tale of email woes or a day-long outage of the mobile network, Spark's customers have learned to take the company's assurances and performance guarantees with a pinch of salt.

So it was with quite some amusement that I read this in today's NZH with respect to the looming switch from the current "old-school" landline network to a proposed new IP-based one:

Chief operating officer Mark Beder said that for most people the switch should be "largely invisible, with minimal disruption to services".

Cue Tui's ad!

But what exactly will this change-over mean for the average landline user?

Well Spark say that the changeover will be largely transparent for most folk.

Existing corded phones will continue to operate as normal -- except that they may not be able to expect continued service in the case of protracted power cuts. Right now, the POTS system continues to operate for quite significant periods during power outages thanks to significant levels of battery backup and the fact that such batteries are only required in the exchange itself.

Perhaps the only users who may have to change their gear will be those who have special medical alarms and businesses who might still have old-fashioned switchboards.

Of course you've got to wonder why we're even bothering with copper-based landline connections in this era of fibre and 4G.

The obvious solution to Spark's aging PSTN infrastructure would be to ditch it in favour of either fibre or 4/5G wireless.

In fact, most households already have several mobile phones which have largely replaced a landline and for many, the only reason the copper is still in service is to deliver ADSL or VDSL broadband. Once fibre is available, most people will (sooner or later) just make the switch.

Fortunately, an IP-based PSTN will operate over any medium so the physical layer becomes kind of unimportant -- but that's perhaps even more reason to retire the copper ASAP -- in favour of lower-maintenance options.

The rate that things are going, I actually wonder if Spark will be able to recover the cost of its looming upgrade.

In conversation with friends and acquaintances, I have found that an increasing number of folk are ditching their POTS connections in favour of naked broadband and a mobile-based voice solution. This is a trend that I only see growing and if (as one could expect), Spark seeks to recover the costs of their upgrade by way of increased charges for such a service, even more will drop it.

A final element in the decline of demand for the "landline" POTS system will be the aging population. As time goes by, the number of people who have grown up with a copper-based phone solution is reducing -- "aging out" of the equation. Most of those under 40 are more than happy to rely on their smartphone than feel a need for a permanent landline voice connection.

So will Spark's "largely invisible" upgrade go to plan?

Is it really even worth the hassle in an era where people are already ditching the POTS for mobile and VOIP solutions such as Skype? Should we just pan the POTS? (did you see what I did there?).

Who is going to pay for this upgrade -- if fewer and fewer people are actually using the POTS?

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