The Telephone Revolution

The dissolution of American Telephone and Telegraph is bringing changes to our phone service.
By Copthorne Macdonald
March/April 1984
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An overview of the telephone revolution: new services, gadgets and systems.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF


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The liberation of the telephone began back in 1968, when the Federal Communications Commission's landmark "Carterfone Decision" first allowed user-owned equipment to be connected to Ma Bell's system. During the 70's, tying into those formerly sacrosanct lines became a sort of "interconnection movement", and new telephone hardware proliferated. Then early this year, evolution turned to revolution when AT&T (the world's largest and richest corporate monopoly) was legally dismembered.

Americans are now dealing with a new and mostly unfamiliar communication environment. Some users will gain and others will lose, and you can best guard your bankroll by understanding the new system. One way to do that is to learn how to connect your own phones (as shown in How to Install a Phone Line). Another is to be up-to-date on the possibilities that the new arrangement offers.

The best overview of the situation I've found is a new 190-page book by Larry Kahaner and Alan Green, entitled Phone Book: The Most Complete Guide to the Changing World of Telephones. Larry and Alan offer a brief historical review of the legal battles against AT&T, take a quick peek at the dismantled Bell System of today, provide details on the opportunities for cut-rate long-distance service, and suggest innovative uses for the new system.

One of the major effects of the new law concerns long-distance calling. Your area phone company is continuing to handle your local calls, and some are still billing you for long-distance service. But you are no longer forced—automatically—to buy your long-distance calls from AT&T. Over 200 firms now offer some form of extended-range phone service, in direct competition with AT&T. Your local phone company is required to provide a connection for these upstarts, and if the area firm does billing for AT&T, it must also provide that service for competitors.

Some of the new long-distance companies have their own microwave networks, while others lease the use of facilities at wholesale rates and resell the service. Phone Book talks a bit about each of the major companies (MCI, ITT, Sprint, Western Union, and Satellite Business System), and 24 of them are listed in the "Yellow Pages" section at the back of the volume. Larry and Alan point out that it takes careful comparison shopping to figure out which of them offers the best deal for you.

The book also discusses the negative side of the new law: the effect on local rates. Back when AT&T and the local Bell companies were tied together, part of the payment for long-distance calls helped to subsidize the cost of local service. The long-distance access charge will be phased out over the next few years, and local rates will be adjusted upward to compensate.

An Explosion of Services

Though the telephone system was designed for voice communication, it's also capable of transmitting various forms of information. Phone Book mentions most of these new capabilities.

For example, businesses depend on hard copy communications such as letters, memos, telegrams, and data printouts. For these, mail service is adequate much of the time . . . but when quick delivery is very important, the cost of actually moving these communications from one place to another can be very high. In the past, the standard business solution to this problem was telex, an international teleprinter service. A message typed onto a telex can be transmitted by telephone to a distant machine that will produce hard copy.

Telex is still with us, but there are some new variations on that theme. One increasingly popular option is electronic mail, a service offered by computer utilities such as Compuserve and The Source. With electronic mail, you type your message into a computer terminal and transmit the encoded data by phone line to the utility's central computer. The communication is stored there, in a section of memory often called the "electronic mailbox", until the addressee calls up the computer utility to check his or her mail. Thus, an electronic-mail letter can arrive within minutes . . . or wait around for days to be "delivered".

The telex system uses a different type of machine and transmission code than computers do. Larry and Alan tell us about "anything-to-anything" networks that have built-in translation capability. The Freedom Network, for example, allows computer terminals and telex machines to "talk" to each other.

Gadgets Galore

It'd be hard not to notice how many new products are being offered to make your phone perform new tasks. Did you know that—in addition to the now-conventional phones that offer automatic and repeat dialing, cordless operation, and fancy enclosures to match any decor—there are telephones that screen incoming calls? A computerized voice asks the calling party for his or her access code, and a lighted display lets you know whether or not it's someone with whom you wish to talk. And if that approach is not all that appealing, another option is a device that permits you to put people on hold.

Would you like to have an electronic operator automatically divert your calls to another number? How about a setup that would allow you to control various appliances in your home while you're miles away? There's even a gadget that prohibits unauthorized long-distance calls from being made on your telephone.

These are just a few of the opportunities that are being opened up by the telephone revolution that began January 1, 1984. With the help of Phone Book, you should be able to make the best of them.


EDITOR'S NOTE: MOTHER EARTH NEWS will no longer be printing New Directions Radio as a regular column. As you can see, though, Cop Macdonald has definitely not left the fold. You can expect to be seeing frequent features from Cop about the latest developments in communications. In the meantime, as Cop has said for the last 61 issues of this magazine, peace.

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