Time to say goodbye, Alexander Graham Bell. The phone system that was built on principles going back to Bell is on the verge of being replaced by Internet technology, thanks to an effort spearheaded by the Federal Communications Commission.

In a post on the FCC's blog (yes, even the FCC has one), agency Chairman Tom Wheeler pointed on Tuesday to a variety of needed changes in the network, including the move from circuit-switch time-division multiplexing to Internet Protocol, or IP. Wheeler joined the FCC as chairman at the beginning of this month, replacing Julius Genachowski.

Wheeler said the agency would begin "a diverse set of experiments" in 2014 to move the U.S. telephone system from one that still employs circuits and copper wires to one that is based on Internet technology.

FCC Authority

In addition, the chairman said he expected the FCC to approve a plan at its January meeting that would look at the revision of the legal, policy and technical issues required for such a major overhaul. The plan will be presented at the December meeting by a task force that has been looking into the transformation.

There is some question as to what the FCC's authority over an IP-based system actually is, given that it has only limited authority over the Internet. But federal regulations have shaped what we know as the standard phone system, such as guaranteeing there is at least one phone company serving every part of the U.S. The consumer group Public Knowledge has called on the FCC to ensure that telephone service remains accessible to everyone.

Other policy and regulations will have to deal with such issues as how 911 calls are managed in an IP network, what the rules are for minimum service, and how "Net Neutrality" -- where network providers provide the same service to everyone -- is handled.

Plain Old Telephone Service

Wheeler has come under criticism for being too close to the telecommunications and broadcast industries, since they previously employed him as a lobbyist. In response, he has said that today, "the American people are my client."

Wheeler described this transformation of the phone system as the Fourth Network Revolution, and compared it to the "creation of industrial organizations and the standardized time zones that followed in the wake of the railroad and telegraph."

Analog technology and physical switches are still used in parts of the network, supporting POTS, or Plain Old Telephone Service. But, with the use of mobile devices growing by leaps and bounds, users are rarely employing just phone service, and the outdated components limit the traffic-carrying capacity.

Completion of the IP conversion is intended to enable more information to be transmitted, which could help support the additional traffic load imposed by the growing use of video. IP-based phone service is already being used by millions of customers of Verizon FiOS, AT&T's U-Verse, and services provided by Skype and Vonage.

Last year, AT&T formally requested permission from the FCC to start the transition to IP-based service, beginning with tests.