Sunday, May 18, 2014

Death of the Land Line (Obituary)

RIP Landline 1847 - 2014

The traditional landline is dead, finally killed off by its last protector, AT&T.   From now on, the idea of having a "telephone" is altered forever.

Maybe this obituary is a few years too late - maybe a few years too early in some parts of the country.   But it is timely.   The landline is dead.

But, what is a landline, anyway?  Until recently, if you wanted "phone service" at home, you would have a "twisted pair" of wires (red and green) go to your house, where it would connect, via an RJ-11 jack, to a telephone.   And you would pay a regulated utility company (a telco) a monthly fee for this phone service - and usually an additional fee for long distance service from a separate carrier (the latter a fairly new innovation from the late 1970's).

By the way, I always thought "Twisted Pair" would be a great name for a punk band.  But I digress.

But between VoIP and Cell phones, the land line has died.   Even the telcos have thrown in the towel, ditching traditional landline service for VoIP.  AT&T, who serves our area, now offers and promotes something called "UVERSE" which is a fiber-to-pole Internet service, with the telephone line piggybacking off of that as a VoIP service.

What is the difference between this and traditional phone service?

In the old days, POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) used the twisted-pair of copper wires to send an analog phone signal to your home, from "the switch" where phone signals were, well, switched.   By the late 1980's, a service called ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) was developed, initially by Bell South in Virginia, to send movies-on-demand to your home.   It failed miserably.

However, it was re-invented as an Internet portal.   Now called DSL, it piggybacked off the twisted pair line, using the bandwidth not utilized by the POTS voice service (hence the cumbersome band-gap filters used with DSL service).  And it worked pretty well.   But basic phone service, with its series of "switches" and Telecommunications Workers of America union members, was pretty much the same.   It was expensive, and long-distance plans were expensive as well.

The Cable companies experimented with phone service as early as the 1970's, but didn't really start offering it until the 1990's.   Cable Modem Internet service promised higher bandwidths than DSL or dial-up.   And with it came something else - VoIP.

Voice over Internet Protocol phone service emulated the POTS service, but actually digitized voices and sent them as packets of data over the Internet.   Vonage, among others, pioneered this service, and offered a monthly rate far less than the telcos - plus free long-distance.  It worked well, once 911 calls were sorted out.   You could not tell the difference between a VoIP call and a traditional analog POTS call.

And VoIP has taken off.   Today there are a number of providers, including NetTalk, which offers unlimited phone service, including long distance, in the US and Canada, for less than $30 a year.   Not per month, per year.  That is less than 1/12th the cost of UVERSE or POTS.

But even the telcos have gone VoIP.  As I noted above, AT&T, who took over BellSouth (the Bell system was broken up into the baby Bells, and then inexplicably, allowed to conglomerate back together again!) now offers something called "UVERSE" which is an internet portal with phone service piggybacked off it as VoIP.   Traditional phone service was the other way around.

Of course, some folks still have POTS land lines.   My neighbors have one, with DSL.   But with each bill they receive, AT&T tries to entice them to switch to UVERSE.   In some parts of the country, such as where we used to live in New York, the DSL network is no longer being expanded, as fiber optic to pole is "the next big thing".  The telcos are no longer investing in land line technologies, or indeed, even DSL, which is seen as obsolete (the bandwidth for DSL has been pretty much maxed out).

The overall trend may be away from even that, however.   Young people today have no "land lines" and use cell phones exclusively for their communications needs.   Even having a land line is seen as being a geezer and outdated.  Wireless may be the wave of the future, as it eliminates all those wires strung from "telephone poles" (actually, utility poles) and thus reduces the amount of labor involved to maintain the infrastructure.

And perhaps as cell phone data speeds increase, even fiber optic to the home will become obsolete, unless the telcos can run actual fiber into the home and increase internet speeds accordingly.

There will still be a few landlines out there, of course, but I suspect the number will drop off sharply in the near future.  Rural areas served by small phone companies may cling to this technology longer.   And some older folks may just stay with their landlines for as long as they are available.   But new installs have been steadily dropping for a number of years (for a decade at least), and this trend will accelerate as even the telcos give up on POTS.

Even businesses have no use for landlines.   Alarm systems and credit card swipe machines no longer require dialers and modems, but instead can send signals through cell phones or routers.   Companies are outsourcing call centers to overseas, using VoIP protocols.  The need for traditional hard-wired phones in the business setting is gone, provided you have a really good internet connection.   Business phone rates were staggering (thanks to the nature of regulated utilities) and thus the switch to VoIP or other services was a no-brainer and saved them thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars, annually.

So what will the future bring?  Wireless, I think.   Perhaps wires or fiber optic into the home will soldier on longer than we expect, just as hard drives are still around years after everyone assumed they were old tech and would be replaced with SDRAMs or something.

But it seems to me that fewer and fewer people need or want a "landline" or even a VoIP line anymore.   For young people, the money spend on a landline or VoIP service would be better spent on more airtime or data plans (or texting plans) for their smart phones - or for faster Internet service.   The explosion in the number of cell towers in the USA means that cell phone calls are now as clear as landline calls.   The idea of dropped calls, static, or odd noises is largely a thing of the past.

What does this mean for the telcos and the unions?   Bad news, for some, at least.   Large telcos like AT&T have their hand in many pies - POTS, UVERSE, and Wireless.   If regulated phone service goes by the wayside, they make it up on UVERSE and Wireless businesses.   In fact, AT&T is actively trying to kill off its POTS service, by making it more and more expensive, and making UVERSE more attractive.

There will come a point where they may just abandon the telco part of their business - by spinning it off into some new company (with a funny tech-y name) and allowing it to slowly fail.   As more and more subscribers switch to non-telco alternatives, the remaining subscriber base will have to pay more and more to support the infrastructure of twisted pair copper lines, switches, and the small army of unionized telco workers (and their pensions).  It is like GM, only worse.   Bankruptcy of these telcos is inevitable.   At that point, it will be interesting to see how that plays out - will municipalities offer new telco franchises, or just abandon that infrastructure entirely?  Or will some clever fellow pick one of these companies up for a song and find a new way to make money from it?   Stay tuned.

The flip side of the coin is this:   Without a regulated utility as a backbone of our communications system, non-regulated companies might be able to charge whatever they think the market will bear, for communications services.   And by communications services, I mean telephone, data, video, internet - the works.  Already today the line between "data" and "voice" and "television" is blurred, as increasingly, they are all the same thing - packets of data sent downstream via the Internet.   Controlling this data stream will be very valuable to these companies - which is why AT&T wants us to dump POTS for UVERSE.

Of course, this all seems very unfair for the consumer - or will.  But we always have the option of consuming less data, less information, less entertainment, less communication.  People who are always on the cell phone (a 2000's phenomenon) or always texting (a 2010's phenomenon) are not more or better informed than the rest of us - just as watching 6 hours of television per day does not improve your life but actually does the opposite.

And perhaps the "free market" will keep prices in line.  We are already seeing a drop in telecommunications prices - if you are astute and know where to look.   You can buy a cell phone for less than $100 and pay 5 cents a minute to talk.   This is a huge discount from even a few years ago, but few people notice it, as they demand $650 smart phones and texting and data plans - driving the cost of communications right back up.

But one thing is for sure - the traditional telephone is dead, dead, dead, and it ain't coming back.

Now, take a trip down memory lane with me, as we eulogize the late, great land-line telephone.  If you are above a certain age, you may remember the following:
1.  Dial phones.  You put your finger in the hole and turned the dial until your finger hit the finger-stop, then you let go.

2.  There was no 911, you called the Operator (dialing "O") and asked for the police or fire or ambulance.

3.  When you dialed "O" you got an operator on one ring.  She (always a she) would help you make long distance call, check a line, connect you to repair, or whatever.

4.   Long distance calls were staggeringly expensive - dollars per minute, back when a dollar bought two or three gallons of gas.

5.  There was no VoiceMail.  Maybe a few people had these newfangled cassette answering machines in the 1970's.   When you called someone, you let it ring TEN TIMES so they could stop what they were doing and go to THE phone.

6.  Yes, most houses had ONE phone, usually in the kitchen, mounted on the wall.  If you were rich, you had an extension in the parent's bedroom.

7.  If you were really rich, or just annoyed by your kids, you might have a "children's line" for the kids.  It would be listed in the "phone book" below your name, as "children's line".

8.  You used THE phone book (there was only one) to look up a phone number.  If you could not find it, you'd call directory assistance, which was a FREE service, and they would look up the number for you.

9.  There was one phone book and ONE yellow pages.  If you wanted to find a commercial service, the Yellow pages was it.  If you wanted to advertise your business, the Yellow pages was it.

10.  When you called a company, you got a receptionist or an operator, who would then re-direct your call.  There were no recordings or DTMF telephone trees, directories, or "Press Numero Ocho para Espanole".   If the company was closed, the phone would just ring and no one would answer - not even a recording.

11.  You did not dial a 10-digit number to reach anyone.  The only time you used area codes was when dialing long distance (if you are really, really old, you remember a time before area codes, when all long distance calls went through an operator and were prohibitively expensive to make and took minutes to connect).

12.  For local calls, you often didn't have to dial even seven numbers.  You dialed the last number of the exchange and then the four digits.  So, for example, you would dial "5-3253" for a local call to connect to "655-3253".

13.   People used mnemonics for phone numbers.  "655-3253" would be listed in an advertisement (or even by the telco) as "OLeander 5-3253" or "OL5-3253".

14.  If you are really, really old, you remember picking up the phone and asking the operator to connect you  - as the phone did not have a dial.

15.   If you were poor, or there was not sufficient service in your area, you would have a "party line" which you would share with other neighbors.  If someone else was on the phone, you could not use it.  But you could listen in to their phone calls.   Each person had their own number, but had a unique ring sequence (the source of today's ident-a-ring).

16.  If you called someone, and they were on the phone, you'd get a busy signal, not a recording.  Many kids today don't even know what a busy signal is, or sounds like!

17.  If you called someone and they weren't there, but someone else answered, people took messages on pieces of paper.  And people would call you back, too, figuring that if you were making a phone call, it must be important!

18.  If you left the office, you might tell your secretary where you were going, so that they could reach you by calling the business, home, or even restaurant where you were.   Restaurants had phones on long cords that they would plug into a jack near your table, so you could take a call.

19.  When you got phone service, you leased the telephone itself from the phone company.  It was their property, and when you left a house or apartment, you left the phone there for the new owner or tenant to use.   You had a choice of about three styles of phones and maybe six colors (which was extra!).

20.  Those old dial phones lasted forever - decades even - and rarely, if ever broke down.  If you go to an antique mart today and buy a used dial phone from the 1950's, chances are, it will still work today, even plugged into your VoIP adapter or cell phone docking station.   Sixty-year-old technology that was used and abused for decades, and it still works.   And they made so many of them, they can be bought for a few dollars, today.

Old land line!  We hardly knew ye!

(Note:  Sadly, I am no relation to Alexander Graham Bell.  If you were born after 1970, you probably don't know who he is anyway, so it doesn't matter.   And you probably don't remember "Ma Bell" or "The Bell System" either.   Never mind.  It wasn't important.)