Carriers in the United States are mandated by law to maintain and offer copper-based landline phone service — even though the technology is well over half a century old. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is taking its first steps today to modernize that system with a new order that calls for companies like AT&T and Verizon to submit proposals for how to provide telephone service of the future using IP — the protocol that's used to transmit data on the internet. With those proposals, the FCC will allow companies to engage in experimental IP phone service that addresses the numerous different requirements that such a system needs to pass before replacing the country's universal wireline phone network.

Companies like AT&T and Verizon have pushed the FCC to let them drop support for costly and outdated copper phone service, and each has proposed its own plans as to how coaxial, fiber, and wireless networks could fill the gap. But there are lots of questions to be answered. Plans like AT&T's only cover 99 percent of customers, and the FCC has little interest in leaving citizens in rural America without phone service in the wake of a changeover from copper. The tests will also help make sure that 911 service is available at all times, and that devices like home alarms and medical devices can continue to work. Perhaps more importantly, companies have to figure out how to transition the US' huge database of phone numbers over to an IP-based system.

New FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler says in a statement that "Our challenge is to preserve the values that consumers and businesses have come to expect from their networks, while unleashing new waves of investment and innovation, which will deliver untold benefits for the American people." The pilot programs should help come up with answers for some of these questions, but it will take regulatory oversight to make sure that the proper protections are in place to make sure that residents can continue to get phone service. According to the FCC, proposals are due by February 20th, and final decisions on which projects will move forward is expected in May of this year.