Telephone versus Internet

The Internet is getting faster and faster. In my neighborhood alone we recently got fiber, with up to 175Mbps upload/download, and some areas even have 1Gbps residential Internet or higher. That is in stark contrast to the “broadband” 10 years ago that maxed out around 800Kbps, and certainly to dial-up, which started declining around the turn of the millennium and had a top speed of 56Kbps.

Later on I will write blogs that talk about how great the Internet is, but for now let’s take a moment to remember where it all started: the Plain Old Telephone System or POTS. As you read the article, keep in mind that I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite, but I want to emphasize the importance of respecting history.

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How many of you would know what to do if confronted with a phone like that? I’m betting there are some readers who have never used a rotary dial phone. When I was growing up touch tone was already available, but we still had a couple of rotary dials around the house. It took about 30 seconds to dial a number, and if you messed up, you had to start over again.
Well, I bought one of these on eBay for my collection (more about that later) and it turns out it still works just fine on Bell Canada’s POTS. I keep it on my desk next to my computer, and it gives me a thrill to see that beautiful red Western Electric Slimline, and hear its classic bell whenever someone calls.

When we talk about communication these days, most people’s minds jump to the Internet as the landmark technology that connects us, but all too often we forget about the importance of the telephone. As I’ll argue below, I say the telephone was more important an invention than the Internet.

First, let’s briefly consider another long-distance communication tool: the telegraph. In some ways, it was even more of a fundamental change. Before the telegraph, long distance communication essentially involved physically carrying a message from one place to another. While postal systems became more complex and reliable in the 18th and 19th centuries, the basic concept of carrying a letter over a distance didn’t change much from the invention of writing to the invention of the telegraph. And then, all of a sudden, with a few taps on a telegraph key, a message could be sent around the world. The only reason this and the radio aren’t quite as notable as the telephone, in my opinion, is because they weren’t really accessible to average people. It was very expensive to send a telegraph, and most people were never equipped to send radio signals, only receive them.

Then comes along Alexander Graham Bell and his telephone. In the decades following the founding of the modern Bell system, its popularity grew rapidly. By the 1930s, telephones were becoming ubiquitous. Whereas you previously had to write a letter and wait days to weeks or even months for a reply, you could now call someone a few blocks away or around the world and have a real-time conversation. It is hard to express what a fundamental change this was for the world. It had far-reaching implications for governments, businesses and individuals. With the telephone, the world suddenly got a lot smaller.

The Internet was hugely important as well, but I don’t believe it caused the same sort of fundamental changes that the telephone did. Let’s not forget that the first dial-up Internet connections were basically telephone conversations between two computers. The Internet certainly allowed a lot more flexibility in the type of information that could be transmitted, but it didn’t totally change the concept of space the way telephones did. The Internet didn’t make voice communication any faster–it’s impossible to improve upon real-time in that regard. Essentially, the telephone system allowed people to conduct business and stay in touch with their loved ones across great distances, which was a totally new paradigm from the old physical transportation of letters, and the Internet is more of an enhancement of that existing technology.

Perhaps once we reach a point where it’s possible to transport physical objects over the Internet, that will be another shift as important as the telephone, but for now, let’s keep things in perspective and give due respect to Bell’s invention.

My purpose in writing this is in part out of personal nostalgia, and in part an outcry at society’s ability to forget history. In Canada our POTS seems to be secure for now, but in the United States and other countries some areas are no longer being served by a traditional telephone service. The idea that VoIP can replace POTS is a fallacy. The people who choose to or are forced to “cut the cord” on their traditional phone services get by because they still have neighbours with landlines. Particularly in rural areas, VoIP is often not an option because dial-up and satellite-based broadband are not suitable for real-time communication. Even in rural areas with DSL, VoIP requires electricity and rural areas are notoriously prone to power outages. Until cellphone batteries can last for a couple of weeks on a single charge, not to mention all the rural areas without cell service, mobile phones will not be a viable replacement for POTS either.

Finally, I would like to call upon everyone to consider the following:

  1. Before cutting the cord on your home phone POTS, consider carefully the situation you might be putting yourself in. In an extended power outage, how will you communicate? Are you okay not having 100% reliable access to emergency services?
  2. Familiarize your kids (and yourself) with older technology. Don’t be a person who can’t operate a rotary dial phone.
  3. Don’t forget our telecommunications history. Whenever you stream a video on Netflix, think about all the men and women who developed the technology and infrastructure over the last 140 years or so that have made it possible.

What do you think? Is it okay to go with VoIP or mobile only? Do you still have a landline? Share your thoughts in the comments!