Say Hello To Some New Ideas On Telephoning
This article originally appeared in Issue# 26
By Colin Covert
On Thursday, June 1, 1982, a delivery truck eased to a stop at Federal Communications Commission headquarters and a perspiring crew of workers began to unload a 57,600 page mountain of densely worded Bell System documents.
They weren't lawyers' briefs protesting the telephone system's breakup, as might have been expected. Rather, they were a bid for one of the most appealing slices of the newly divided telecommunications pie.
Ma Bell was staking a claim to a key role in a communications system that may one day have us all speaking into our wrist watches, a la Dick Tracy: cellular radio. General Telephone & Electronics, MCI, Western Union and a hundred others were close behind.
"Cellular," as the new technology is called, is hot. Although they use the new computer-monitored radio technology to transmit calls, cellular telephones will operate like the mobile telephones now in use. Because of the current system's high cost, present usage is limited to a relatively small number of business and professional subscribers.
In addition to cheaper, easier to use mobile telephones, cellular could also compete with and outmode many present radio, telephone and CB systems.
AT&T's investment of nearly $200 million in cellular systems demonstrates its view of this potential. By 1986 Bell spokespersons estimate the phone companies' combined spending on the system will amount to nearly $1 billion or more.
If you've never heard of cellular, don't feel lonely. Few people outside the telecommunications industry have. Like fiber optics and computer networking1 it's one of the myriad technical advances tumbling out of research and into the marketplace at a dizzying rate.
Some use the phone system in surprising ways or bypass it entirely. Many have nothing in common with Alexander Graham Bell's invention.
New Ground Rules
To understand the new technology's benefits, ~ necessary to know how the old system works. For a moment, think of it as a road that can be expanded and improved within certain limits. Like any road, its structure and rules were ordained by its first customers, in this case voice subscribers. The primary concern was the way sounds are received by the ear.
The way most of the network transmits information mimics the wave forms of sound with variable electrical waves. The ear has a generous tolerance for error in comprehending speech. Garble a couple of words or throw in a whisper of static and we can still understand most conversations.
Lately, however, a growing number of customers are lobbying for traffic that would move in a series of "on" and "off" energy pulses instead of waves. To the computer community, the telephone transmission system is merely a corridor along which digitized electronic information can flow, an expressway for vast amounts of information traveling in speed-demon bursts.
And this view is becoming widely accepted. Using phone tines to link distant computers blurs the distinction between the phone and the computer. The resulting blend represents a major turning point.
Two or more computers joined together form a network, a system moving information at high speeds. Through a modem, a device that converts electrical wave signals transmitted via phone in digital signals the computer can understand, microcomputers can put users into contact with colleagues across the city or around the world.
Electronic mail — simply the picking up and sending of messages by computers — is another important product of this technology. Messages can run the gamut from love letters to financial reports to lengthy 3-B diagrams. Computer mail costs less than paper mail.
According to one estimate, it costs $6 to produce and mail a standard business letter in the United States. Because it eliminates postage and much paperwork, electronic mail can run as little as 50 cents a letter. Best of all, it can be delivered in a split second. Neither rain nor snow, etc.
The market for such services exists today. According to International Resource Development, Inc., a Connecticut research firm, about 15% of today's microcomputers use modems or other data interface devices, and the number is expected to climb steadily toward l00%.
In the office automation field, a similar proliferation of modems and local network systems (the electronic linkages that tie small groups of microcomputers together) is also predicted. Once suitably wired together, offices, labs or classrooms can share information and access to equipment.
Fast and Accurate
The writing is on the phone system's wall. If it is to capture the growing computer communications market, it must adapt, and quickly, along two lines: move information faster, and improve accuracy.
First, speed. People invest thousands of dollars in computers to bring routine chores to a rapid conclusion. Typical personal computer modems can now push up to 1,200 bits of information per second across phone lines. Links like Ethernet, local network for offices, can transfer 10 million bits of information per second. Traditional phone lines are ox carts; Ethernet-type systems are bullet trains. Few of today's users need such sophisticated systems. But the need may not be far off.
Second, accuracy. Computer engineers first locked horns with the communications industry on this one in the 50's. When they started talking about the exacting standard of accuracy computers require (one dropped digit can garble reams of data), Bell told them they couldn't junk hardware worth $40 billion for their convenience. At the time, that attitude may have been warranted.
Now, with computers becoming as common as toasters, things are different. In addition, Bell itself is carrying more and more voice traffic in digital form. Besides being farsighted1 digital voice transmission is low cost and efficient.
A technique called pulse code modulation uses a special microchip to transform sound into the sane electronic nuggets that computer instructions are made of. We can expect to see such chips proliferate. Goodbye, modem. Simply plug a computer terminal into the phone lines and interface to your heart's content.
At Light Speed
Light waves, with frequencies many thousands of times higher than radio waves, are a nearly perfect medium for digital data transmission. The most promising current approach is called fiber optics, wherein messages once carried by electricity flowing through copper wires are transmitted by pulses of light zipping along hair-thin glass fibers.
The superfine glass strands cost less to install and maintain, but greater capacity is the prime advantage. A single optical fiber can carry as much information as hundreds or even thousands of copper wires. Excess capacity generated by the new system can be allocated to videotex, cable or even two-way traffic between subscribers.
The new technology's progress appears inexorable. Bell completed the first leg of its interstate laser-powered telecommunications system, linking the Washington, DC and New York metropolitan areas, in 1983.
Bell has simply stopped laying any new copper wire at all in high-traffic locations like Los Angeles. Proposed users of these extensive optical fiber data highways range from developers of office buildings to New York and New Jersey port authorities.
An equally revolutionary future is predicted for the new cellular telephones. The term itself refers to the method of transmission, which utilizes low power transmitters each serving a small area or "cell" 10 or 15 miles across. As a caller moves from one cell to another, a computer switches the call to an unused frequency in the new cell.
Through subdivision of cells when traffic is heavy, the system can handle a virtually infinite number of calls. Quality is as good as regular telephones and all current features will be available.
The cellular challenge to existing systems is dramatic. In New York City, for example, only 12 of the Bell system's 700 mobile telephone customers can make calls at the same time. Proposed cellular service could handle thousands of calls f or up to 200,000 customers.
The 160,000 mobile telephones now in use in the U.S. represent only one-tenth of one percent of the cars now on the road. Hand- held pocket-sized portable phones are expected to become available by the end of the decade.
With AT&T and other applicants coming on-line in a year or so, the cost of a mobile telephone, now $2,000, is expected to drop sharply.
In a few years, cellular systems will serve the 300 largest U.S. cities. Whether you're walking in a park, driving or lying on a beach, you'll be able to place a call almost anywhere. Eventually, the cellular phone may replace the desk phone. The nation's phone system is clearly ringing in a new era. America's electronic reindustrialization, its initial impact acknowledged but by no means deeply understood, is accelerating. Very little about the landscape of our lives will look the same when it has run its course.
Will we turn the flood of information to our advantage or let it overwhelm us? That is the question.
Reprinted from TWA Ambassador by permission of the author and publisher; copyright 1983 Trans World Corp., All Rights Reserved.