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FCC announces plans to upgrade century-old phone system

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The proposed changes to the current landline system in the United States will replace the currently used copper wires.Reuters

Move over, Ma Bell.

About a third of Americans use iPhone or Android-based cellular phones, and another third place digital phone calls through their cable provider, Vonage or others. But that last third of Americans still rely on the century-old network of copper wires that make up the backbone of the country's communication system. And they're long overdue for an upgrade.

“The public switched telephone network will be shut off some day. The question is when will that be,” an FCC official told FoxNews.com.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday announced plans to expedite the largest change to the nation's phone system in decades -- a move away from the aging, circuit-switched system that sends those analog signals over copper cables to a modern, digital, IP-based network that largely relies on fiber optics.

'This is what I have called the Fourth Network Revolution, and it is a good thing.'

- FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

Once tests prove that the new system works in localized trials, the digital phone network will be rolled out nationwide. And ultimately, the copper wires that have linked families and farm houses for over a century will be turned off. 

"This is what I have called the Fourth Network Revolution, and it is a good thing," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a blog post. "The way forward is to encourage technological change while preserving the attributes of network services that customers have come to expect ... we have listened, and now it is the time to act. In this, I agree with my commission colleagues."

The copper wires that make up the public switched telephone network carry POTS signals, short for plain old telephone system. And even cellular calls still touch and depend on all that old copper.

In January, the FCC is expected to begin "a diverse set of experiments" in order to figure out how to transition to the new IP-based system, a transition certain to take years. The initial experiments will likely include regional tests of an IP-based system to ascertain reliability, scalability and so on, an FCC spokesman told FoxNews.com.

The commission’s technological advisory committee set a goal of 2018, which is likely too ambitious, he said. But expect localized trials as soon as 2015.

The upgrade may mean introducing the age of video calling to landlines. An IP landline network, unlike current copper wires can handle much larger amounts of data that could be used to make video calls.

"Our current infrastructure has served us well for almost a century but it no longer meets the needs of America's consumers," AT&T's Jim Cicconi said in a response published online. "The transition to broadband and IP services that has already begun is driven by consumers who are moving to the Internet and choosing to connect in ways not imagined just a decade ago."

Companies like Verizon and AT&T currently control the existing landline phone network and are subject to strict rules by the FCC to protect consumers. It is unclear how the planned changes will affect the telephone companies as the FCC has historically been opposed to classifying broadband Internet as a telecom service.

"The way forward is to encourage technological change while preserving the attributes of network services that customers have come to expect," Wheeler wrote. "History has shown that new networks catalyze innovation, investment, ideas, and ingenuity."