The 21st Century Is Here, and It Uses 19th-Century Technology

By Schuyler, Michael | Computers in Libraries, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The 21st Century Is Here, and It Uses 19th-Century Technology


Schuyler, Michael, Computers in Libraries


"The future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed," is a phrase attributed to William Gibson, the man who saved science fiction from the doldrums with the publication of Neuromancer in the eighties. No-where is this more apparent than in the communications industry. On the one hand, cell phones, Wi-Fi, and Voice over IP (VoIP) are taking months, rather than years, to deploy. On the other hand, the world's telephone systems are still running on 19th-century technology invented in the 1830s by Samuel Morse, who was born in 1791.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

That's "Morse" as in Morse Code. His idea was to communicate using electrical pulses transmitted over wires. In 1844, Morse succeeded with the telegraph, a one-way mechanism. It wasn't until the 1870s that Alexander Graham Bell succeeded in sending voice over wires, but that was almost accidental. Bell was originally trying to invent a "multi-telegraph" capable of sending more than one message at a time. He used tones to differentiate the messages, and that led to voice transmission and reception.

At the very heart of telephones is a massive grid of wires underneath our feet and above our heads. Two wires--usually red and green and called "tip" and "ring"--connect from your telephone set hanging on the wall of the kitchen all the way to a central office somewhere in your community, and from there to a large frame where several thousand other wires also congregate. These wires link to switching equipment that allows any two sets of wires to be connected to each other, either to your neighbor across the street, or to your relative in another country.

It's still just two wires. There may be microwave towers, line concentrators, and computers within the connections, but the basic fact of those two wires, devoted exclusively to your telephone number, is always present, even if the percentage of the time you are on the phone is nil. The infrastructure to handle all this is vast. With the U.S./Canada area code structure now in place, 10 billion telephone numbers are possible.

So here we are in the 21st century, sitting on a communications infrastructure that was well-established by the end of the 19th century. Moreover, one that was conceived by a fellow born in the 18th century--a few years after the American Revolutionary War. It's a testimony to both inertia and the soundness of the original engineering that the system has lasted as long as it has.

Because of the nature of the beast, it was regulated during most of its existence. Parts of it still are. It's been regulated because it's been a monopoly. It's been a monopoly because no one wanted to live with multiple sets of wires all competing for your business. That's not the only way to solve the problem. Fire departments used to be private concerns. You bought fire insurance from a company and placed a sticker in your window. If there was a fire, the various fire companies would show up, and the one whose sticker was in the window would put the fire out. The system was simplified by making fire departments part of government, another sort of monopoly.

With more modern technology came the desire of other companies to compete with the Ma Bells of the world. It took quite a while for the monopoly strategy to begin crumbling, but it's in full swing now.

First of all, we had cell phones completely re-engineer the long-distance market. Packaged so-many-minutes-per-month plans eroded the traditional long-distance carrier's ability to do business. It was so inconvenient. You had to find a "landline" to make a call! But if you still had a landline phone, you could buy a credit-card-sized certificate at the grocery store offering 4-cent-perminute calls to an intermediary 800 number and skip your long-distance carrier. Younger people went "off the grid" altogether and used cell phones as their primary numbers. With so-called "number portability" now a reality (meaning you can keep the same telephone number for life despite changing carriers) the larger landline, infrastructure-laden firms will have a very difficult time surviving. …

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