Hello??? Where is my Telephone Call Going?

by | Digital Audio, ISDN, Technology

I’ve recently read a very interesting article about  the disposition of POTS ( plain old telephone service) lines getting lost in a tangled maze of voice delivery systems in the USA,  which is increasingly cutting off rural areas from the country’s telephone grid. What I’m about to expound upon may appear controversial to some. All I can say is, “Oh Well.”

POTS lines are  the aging copper wires that connect the nation’s land lines. ISDN  lines consist of  twisted pairs of copper wires that  make up the circuit-switched network once primarily owned and operated by AT&T across the USA.

AT&T started as the universal carrier of telephone service in the early 1900’s. By 1940, it began to adapt to and provide newer technologies,beginning with microwave, and later, satellite transmissions via Telstar,  then  cellular, wireless, and today,  fiber. The company became a monopoly.  In 1984,  “Ma Bell” was ordered by the goverment’s anti-trust orders to break up into the “baby-bells”, and divided much  its ownership rights and equipment into eight regions. By 2011, AT&T was involved in another anti-trust litigation when it intended to merge with T- Mobile in which it would deliver service to 97% of the nation’s users.

Today, many long-distance POTS connections, including ISDN are becoming increasingly garbled, lost and corrupted by static.


The reason is the growing complexity of the overall global communications system, which is rapidly morphing into Internet-based technologies and wireless connections.

POTS and ISDN call switched circuits were once completely carried over copper wires, from end to end over a network of dedicated circuits, from point A to B.  Those were the days of  universal service and there was basically one company that provided it, AT&T. Today, reliable POTS is unfortunately becoming too expensive  to maintain its  infrastructure  indefinitely.

The Public Service Commission even acknowledges that the days of POTS are over as today’s  network is fast becoming completely digital, “with calls reduced to bits and sent over a ( hugely massive) web of links provided by telephone, cable, cellular and fixed wireless providers.”

The “Bad Actors” are Tough to Identify

The biggest issues occur in the hinterlands,  the most rural areas of the country. This is generally the midsection of the country, excluding the east and west coasts , where long-distance and wireless carriers pay higher than normal rates to complete calls. The higher fees help pay to maintain the network and complete the calls. At the same time the those long-distance or wireless providers contract out to third-party “least cost – routing” services to connect at the lowest price.   Then calls are lost and rerouted and the  fines are not large enough to equal the amount of money saved by the providers by not completing calls.

When the provider has to interconnect with other providers to complete a call over the network, they end up making the interconnections digitally, just like what non or former ISDN users like myself do with a bridging or streaming  service. Or we’ll  just use video chat , social media, or VOIP apps to connect across the country or world.

This pretty much explains why the 45+ year old ISDN switched lines are experiencing more chirps, and drop outs, at least in my own experience, here in Milwaukee, and even when I had ISDN lines for several years in California.

Heck, I’ve even had my regular telephone calls lost completely within the AT&T system while trying to cancel my ISDN service. It took an hour to get to someone to help me get  it done. The phone numbers to the department handling my ISDN service were either disconnected, sent to a call center in India that didn’t understand what I was talking about, or  ended up being connected  to a completely wrong department.

We  chose to disconnect our land line via AT&T U-verse because it just didn’t work, despite how many routers their technicians replaced. Even the initial  installation of the service had issues and we had to push to make it happen after the first tech told us it couldn’t happen. He tried to call his department supervisor for help but it was looped to a wrong number within their own system.

Cell phones and internet are our business and personal communication tools for now.

Got  Plan B?

Like the canary in a coal mine, what is happening to telephone transmissions throughout regions large and small within the middle United States is indicative of something that’s not only been happening  for years, but is certain to get worse. While our telcos are adapting rapidly to new media technologies, many recording studios in my opinion maintain a parochial position and hang, perhaps blindly in the comfort zone believing copper lines as the only reliable choice. What’s the back up plan for that very important call or recording session between New York and LA or to Nowhere, Nebraska? Or an emergency call to a doctor or family member?

What has been your experience? What do you foresee?


  1. Hey Bobbin – you’ve obviously done your research here, and I’m always interested to hear your findings. Even in my neck of the woods (but across the state line of Indiana from Michigan, where I now live) I’ve heard of ISDN rates skyrocketing. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, or isolated in a sweet zone that has performed without problems, and is still very affordable. Since so many of my clients are still using ISDN, and it’s working well for me personally, I’m one of those who says “if it ain’t broke (at least in my experience), don’t fix it”. I’m open to new technologies and followed what you and Tim at Creative Media did a few months back, so maybe the time will come when I’ll jump ship as well. But for now, it’s still pretty clear sailing for me….knock wood….or copper!

    • Debbie,
      You must one of the lucky ones who’ve been in for a while and have a “grandfathered” residential account. There’s another female voice over talent who lives about 60 miles north who only pays about $40/month. Quite a far cry from $500/month that always made me feel like crying. But it’s the business practices behind all this disparity that are so harmful to small businesses and individuals alike. So I appreciate hearing your experience here. But I know you’ll always have a plan B, right?
      Best, Bobbin

  2. Like Debbie, I too have had ISDN service here near Sacramento and it has been very dependable and inexpensive. Don’t think the rate ($45 monthly) has ever changed in the 15 years we’ve been here. A major agency I work with still prefers it over other services. When over 20 percent of my revenue comes from this agency, I am not about to ask them to chuck it for some other system. When the service gets bad for either of us, I am sure we will both make the switch. But for now I am still happy with the “dinosaur” technology. My concern is the lack of consistently good service with digital. Dropped calls, users that often sound like they are on another planet, noisy connections. I may be old school, but I want to hang on to my clean sounding land lines as long as I can.

    • Wayne,
      You’re lucky to live on the west coast and have ISDN service at the $45/month rate, and can’t blame you a bit for hanging on to it. It makes good business sense to do so. I certainly would. I’m pointing out that a good many voice over talents and studios in more and more regions throughout the country are not enjoying the same benefits of price and line quality. There are changes afoot, and as one being impacted negatively by random price goughing, I’ve changed my business model to seek and embrace alternative remedies. Thus, plan B. (Digital technology has vastly improved, even within the last year). I remain hopeful that we’ll all be able to get what we need to deliver the best quality audio and service alternative to our clients. Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation.

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