Friday, June 02, 2006

Long Distance: A Concept from the Past

I tried to make a long-distance call on my home phone the other day but failed. It’s not that I had forgotten how to do it, but that I had not selected a long-distance carrier. So I got a recording telling me that there was no long-distance carrier attached to my phone number.

The event led me to wonder why we still have long-distance calling. I obviously haven’t made a long-distance call on my home phone in months. I always use my cell phone. There is no long-distance calling on most cell phone plans. A call is a call, regardless of where it goes.

The whole concept of long-distance calling is archaic. Local calling area boundaries are pretty much arbitrary. And the designation of long-distance didn’t always refer to actual distance. Once upon a time, it was long-distance to Franklin but not to Columbus, even though they are both equally far from Edinburgh.

Calling long-distance wasn’t always straight-forward. I can still recall my mom making a long-distance call to one of our relatives in Kentucky back in the early 1960s. She started out by dialing the operator, another outdated concept. Most of today’s operators are automated recordings.

The next 10 minutes or so of her call consisted of one operator talking to another as each one plugged in the next connection between Edinburgh and Taylorsville, Ky. Once the connection was made, she didn’t talk very long, because the cost was a factor. In those days, due to the human involvement in the call and the equipment used, a 10-minute long-distance call could cost several dollars.

These days, people make long-distance calls simply by dialing them. No operator is involved unless it’s a collect call, and then the operator is automated. Real live operators are relegated to director assistance duty.

On the equipment side, nobody has to plug in wires or flip switches anymore. It’s all done by computer. And with the advent of fiber optics networks, no longer does there have to be a single line leading all the way from the home of the caller to the home of the person called. Fiber optic cables can carry several calls at once.

In fact, it doesn’t take the computer much more effort to connect you with someone in California as it does to connect you with your neighbor across the street. So why is the phone company still charging long-distance fees?

The answer probably has something to do with federal regulations. Local calling areas were set up decades ago, when it took substantially more resources for the phone company to place a long-distance call.

A new type of phone system is gaining popularity these days. It’s called voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP. There are several companies that offer the service, including many cable TV companies.

VoIP calls use your broadband Internet connection to send your voice over the Internet digitally. It’s much more efficient for a couple of reasons. One is that your voice information can be compressed. More importantly, though, is that there doesn’t have to be a continuous connection between you and the person on the other end of the line. Information is sent only as needed in packets. Phone lines can carry many packets from different callers at the same time.

VoIP companies charge a flat fee each month and you can call anywhere in the U.S. There are no long-distance fees unless you call outside the country.

There are still some kinks to be worked out with VoIP, not the least of which is that 911 operators can’t locate you yet. But it’s probably the future of telephony once the technicians get all the bugs out.

In the mean time, I’ll stick to using my cell phone to make those calls the phone company arbitrarily designates as long-distance.

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