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The International Writers Magazine
: Comment

James Skinner

Many moons ago, I gave a lecture in Central America on the future growth of the telecommunications industry. It was the days when fax had overtaken telex, and the personal computer, known as the IBM PC was beginning to overtake the typewriter.

But the real breakthrough was in digital transmission that eventually became the norm displacing its old rival, the analogous version.It was never more apparent than in the proliferation of fibre optic cabling throughout the world, both submarine and overland that permitted an extraordinary increase in both capacity and speed of the transmission of data. The development of faster and smaller microprocessors were the final added compliment that allowed scientists to introduce a plethora of new services never dreamt of a couple decades earlier. Telephones however, were still connected to their original umbilical cord, a piece of copper wire that gave them dial tone and thus access to the outside world.

My thesis for a Masters degree, again several years ago, consisted of a project to build a telephone system that would eventually cover the whole planet and reach the most remote parts of the world. I was, at the time, convinced that apart from water, communications was more important to the development of the poorest sectors of humanity than anything else, including electricity. Forget about building roads, bridges or power grids, I had designed a network of isolated public phone exchanges, powered by solar power and interconnected by satellite communications that would allow every human being to be within an hour’s walk, or ten minutes donkey ride of a telephone. I even sent a copy to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Both were kind enough to acknowledge my paper. To my surprise, I was proven right. Only a few weeks ago, The Economist’s leading report placed the telephone service at the top of the priority list way above television broadcasting, as the most important service to benefit the poor nations of the world. They had however, used the mobile phone as their basic tool. In my dissertation, I had not counted on this new device and the journal’s editorial consisted of the proliferation of millions of today’s common little portable talk machines.

Curiously enough, I also presented some time later, a paper on the ‘theory’ of cellular phone technology - long before today’s ten year olds were using them to chat with invisible friends or transmit pictures of their pet turtle crawling along the lawn. I knew all about the limitations of coverage and the interim legislation on base station installations to cover congestion as well as antennae restrictions.

But the customer profile of the mobile service user twenty years ago was different. He was a highly paid Norwegian businessman who walked around the streets of Oslo with a square block nicknamed ‘the brick’ dangling from his side connected by cable to a large handset glued to his head. Involved in the marketing of international projects for a multinational, I scoured the planet for developing world licenses in the new and upcoming telephone services to offer my company’s latest version of the ‘milk’ carton telephone but never dreamt that it would turn into one of the most lucrative and fascinated systems of communications ever developed by mankind. Nevertheless, I still considered myself a man of vision. That is, until Internet came along. This time I had to throw in the towel!

Anyone in the telecommunications or the computer industry around the middle of the eighties never dreamt of the incredible advances that have taken place since the introduction of a world wide web capable of ‘connecting people’ across the globe. The revolution that has taken place is outstanding. Encyclopaedias are old hat, newspapers are loosing clients as first hand news can be picked up instantaneously from anywhere in the world and cell phones have blended into the technology as an intricate part of the system. They are an Internet navigator, portable computer, television camera and data communicator all wrapped into a gadget no larger than a bar of Kit Kat. Amazing!
Yet there is one aspect that has been completely overlooked and that is quality.
Today’s cellular phones are not able to upkeep the standards of transmission laid down a hundred years ago when Graham Bell with his instrument together with Almon B. Strowger and his exchange introduced the first ever fixed wire telephone system in the world. Criteria such as ‘call set up time’, ‘call completion ratio’ or ‘noise level percentage’ all comes to mind when I try to use these infernal machines to try to talk to someone. During my early days as an engineering apprentice I had all these parameters drummed into me as essential to offer first class service to the public. The slightest bit of ‘crackling’ heard over a phone link, or the excessive number of ‘busy tones’ at the end of a dialling sequence meant that my designing was flawed and that I would be shown to the corner of the classroom. The basic audio cycle as it was known had to be reproduced at the other end exactly as it had originated. Placido Domingo’s voice at one end should not sound like Margaret Thatcher at the other and vice versa.

So why has the ‘quality of a voice connection’ using a mobile phone suddenly gone out of the window? Quite simple, nobody really cares as long as the rest of the services offered on the phone’s menu work. If Jane can exchange ‘chat’ with Jodie, little Johnny play at Superhero with his Gameboy or Dad tell the boss he’s working on the budget as he is about to tee off on the fourth hole, mobile phones serve their purpose.
Quantity not quality rules.
© James Skinner. May 10th, 2005.

James a regular at Hackwriters and you can read his other piece this month here
Researching an historical novel about Argentina
James Skinner on fact & fiction

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