Ubiquitous and reliable [landline] telephone service was one of the great electrical engineering achievements of the previous century. Its story is fascinating and the ways in which it changed communities and economies are innumerable.
I am fortunate enough to have had a brief period of access to a telephone central office back in the peak of the landline telephone’s popularity (1999). A CO is an engineer’s dream. Tens of thousands of copper pairs in improbably thick bundles, sheathed in all manner of period-appropriate materials (including lead), drape across massive steel supports in cable vaults beneath the city streets. They rise up into the distribution frame where they are terminated with the prevailing technology of their time: solder, wire-wrap, or punch-down terminals. From there the copper continues its journey to racks and racks of telephone switches which effectively bridge more than 100 years of communication technologies.
In spite of the Bell/AT&T monopoly that lasted well into the 1980s, the system was designed with insane attention to quality and reliability. Hardware was robust and over-engineered. Wires were artfully routed through racks with cable lacing techniques. Buildings housing switching equipment were designed to withstand a range of disasters, natural and unnatural. Power was provided by enormous central batteries, making the whole system independent of the whims of the power grid. Some customers experienced uninterrupted service for decades.
Unfortunately, the whole system is falling apart. The problem here in New England begins 16 years ago with the made-up word Verizon.
In a weird turn for a once-mighty sector broken up by federal antitrust action, huge waves of consolidation began taking place in telecom around Y2K. Lack of competition and relentless focus on short-term profits (thanks in part to the emergence of mega-profitable mobile phone service) led to a complete lack of investment in infrastructure. Old cables were left to rot in place. Upgrades simply didn’t happen. Verizon, aware of the opportunity presented by this new “Internet” thing, briefly started deploying mega-fast future-proof fiber-to-the-home service, but permanently froze investment before the system could be expanded to urban Boston. If you want high speed Internet service here today, you’re stuck with cable TV (America’s other favorite monopoly)!
I have been a landline phone customer for far longer than my peers. I still have one. But for all the purported advantages (call quality, reliability) it sucks. My service fails at least once a year now, usually due to wet cables. Verizon dutifully “repairs” it every time, a technician once explained, by moving my service to an open trunk pair with less water damage.
The final nail in the POTS coffin is nuisance calls. My phone rings a half-dozen times a day now with everything from surveys to news that I’ve won a free cruise, a vague “problem with my credit card account,” or (most commonly now) a recording claiming to be National Grid seeking to scam some personal information of mine. Verizon is doing nothing about it, and they honestly seem to not give a fuck.
I like having a home phone. The audio quality is so much better than that of highly compressed mobile phone calls. I like the bulk and weight of an old-school receiver in my hand. It’s great not to worry about battery charge. Or holding a warm radio transmitter against my brain for hours.
So here we go, into the brave new world of VoIP. The golden era of analog phone service is over. One last holdout, cutting the cord!