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!

One Comment

  1. Freddie January 27, 2016

    This makes me sad. I imag­ine that this makes you feel the way I feel about impend­ing doom hang­ing over the USPS. It would be such a tragedy to replace a long-stand­ing mar­vel of inno­va­tion and reli­able func­tion with a cheap­er, faster ser­vice that places the user at the whim­sy of soul­less com­pa­nies. Sigh.

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January 26, 2016 January 26, 2016 infrastructure by Scott [permanent link]