Tag Archives: telephones

Telephones

Most of my generation who grew up in the US have always been able to take telephones for granted. My own life experience with phones is more varied. From 1967 to 1971 we lived in Bangkok, where I never used a phone. As was true for kids at the time all over the world, I didn’t need Read More…

Most of my generation who grew up in the US have always been able to take telephones for granted. My own life experience with phones is more varied.

From 1967 to 1971 we lived in Bangkok, where I never used a phone. As was true for kids at the time all over the world, I didn’t need to. My friends lived nearby, and we all wandered freely in our neighborhood. There was no need to call to arrange play dates or swims at the neighborhood pool: we’d be out for hours, and parents never seemed to worry about where we were. If we were late for dinner, they’d walk out and find us.

Phones became a factor in my life when my dad and I moved back to the US. I stayed for several periods with my aunt and cousin, out in the country in Texas. The nearest town, Coupland, had a population of about 600, most living out of sight of their neighbors on patches of land that grew crops or cattle.

The telephone rang a lot, but most of the calls were for other people: we were on a party line. You knew the call was for your phone by the specific ring, eg ring-ring pause, ring-ring pause. If you needed to make a call, you never knew whether the line was free until you picked up the phone and heard a dial tone. If it was in use, you’d hear a neighbor’s conversation. You could learn a lot about the neighbors that way (especially if you picked up the phone very quietly). It was considered very rude to eavesdrop, but friendly to greet the other parties and maybe join their conversation. If you needed the line for an emergency, you could ask the others to hang up and let you place your call. Neighbors who hogged the phone line were judged to be inconsiderate.

Home with my dad in Pittsburgh, I began to use the phone to arrange to see friends who lived across the city, or just to talk. Like everyone, we had a private line at home. I don’t remember using the phone much myself, though it was a cliché behavior of teen and pre-teen American girls to be always on the phone. Families who could afford it got multiple phone lines into their homes.

In 1974, I was thrilled to get a modern phone: a Touchtone Trimline. No more dialing a digit, waiting for the dial to roll back, dialing the next one… all you had to do was punch in the digits, one after the other, and it made funny beeping and booping sounds (you could even play simple tunes on it). We had a second phone that hung on the wall in the kitchen, though we still had only one line – now I could interrupt my dad’s calls, or he could find the line occupied by me, on our own internal party line.

Kids would make prank calls to random numbers (“Is your fridge running? Well, you’d better go catch it!”), and there were obscene phone calls – impossible for the ordinary citizen to trace, in the 1970s. (Later, there were special codes you could punch into the phone, starting with *, to trace a number that had just called you. This changed many phone behaviors.)

Local calls were free, but calls outside your own area code, let alone the country, were tremendously expensive. Most American kids wouldn’t have noticed this except maybe for the occasional call to a grandparent. For me, it was a real problem. After my parents’ divorce, my mother had remained in Thailand while my father and I returned to the US. We could not afford international calls, so my only contact with my mother was via letters, when even airmail could take weeks.

When my dad, stepmother, and I moved overseas again, to Bangladesh, I was far from my US friends as well, and had to depend on unreliable mail service to stay in touch. This included my schooling: I had to do eighth grade by correspondence school, because there was not room for me at the American school in Dhaka. All this changed when I went off to boarding school the following year – but my dependence on long, slow, paper communications did not.


next: Lines of Communication: Woodstock School in the Telecoms Age

series: Global Telecommunications: A Personal History

Global Telecommunications: A Personal History

I was born in 1962. During my lifetime, long-distance and mass communications, previously rare, expensive, and available only to a few, have become available to a large proportion of people all over the planet. The consequences, for individuals and societies, have been profound, and are still playing out as these critical tools continue to spread. Read More…

I was born in 1962. During my lifetime, long-distance and mass communications, previously rare, expensive, and available only to a few, have become available to a large proportion of people all over the planet. The consequences, for individuals and societies, have been profound, and are still playing out as these critical tools continue to spread. By 2020, 4 billion human beings (80% of adults) are expected to own a smart phone: we are headed towards what my employer, Ericsson, calls the Networked Society. What changes in the world can we expect to flow from this?

One way to guess about the future is to look at the recent past. It’s a truism to say that everyone’s life has been changed by the revolutions in communications of the last fifty years. Thanks to unusual life circumstances and a curious nature, I have spent a lot of my life on the bleeding edge of those revolutions, an early participant and sometimes instigator in previously unimaginable activities such as:

Living much of my life and career online, I have experimented with just about every possible technology as it became available, developing new methods and approaches for applying them as needed.

Tools and techniques have not changed radically in 35 years, but what could be done with them has been limited by connectivity, bandwidth, and portability. When I was born, the world’s few computers were large mainframes that lived in university or government labs. Telephones were connected via copper wires, and, in some of the places where I grew up, such as Thailand and India, there weren’t very many phones in homes when I lived there. But now we’re quickly reaching a time in which all of the world’s people will be connected to each other and to powerful computers, via handheld computers (aka smart phones), over 5G networks. I now work for a company that has been and will be making this happen.

It’s been a very interesting time to live and work through. In a series of posts, I’ll be exploring my personal view of this history over my lifetime, and a global territory.

Series

Those Anti-Social Smartphones

An ironically popular theme in social media lately is “Smartphones have made people antisocial!”, often illustrated with a photo of a bunch of people who happen to be standing or sitting near each other, all heads-down, engrossed in whatever is happening on their phones. There is usually accompanying text, some sanctimonious, head-shaking statement about how Read More…

An ironically popular theme in social media lately is “Smartphones have made people antisocial!”, often illustrated with a photo of a bunch of people who happen to be standing or sitting near each other, all heads-down, engrossed in whatever is happening on their phones. There is usually accompanying text, some sanctimonious, head-shaking statement about how “before smartphones, people used to actually talk to each other in public.”

Actually, they didn’t. Continue reading

Lines of Communication: Woodstock School in the Telecoms Age

When I attended Woodstock (1977-1981), communication from and within India was fraught with difficulty. Letters to foreign countries – even in Asia – took weeks. Packages arrived damaged, or not at all. (Nowadays, Indian mail is more reliable than Italian.) In my four years in Mussoorie I spoke with my parents by phone twice, I Read More…

When I attended Woodstock (1977-1981), communication from and within India was fraught with difficulty. Letters to foreign countries – even in Asia – took weeks. Packages arrived damaged, or not at all. (Nowadays, Indian mail is more reliable than Italian.)

In my four years in Mussoorie I spoke with my parents by phone twice, I think, and can’t remember now what for – there must have been some kind of emergency or urgent news.

There were only a few phones on campus, and none in teachers´ residences except perhaps the principal´s. The few we had didn’t work very well: calling across Mussoorie could take several attempts to get a line at all. Calling out of town required that a “trunk call” be booked hours in advance, and such calls were extremely expensive.

mobile phone ads, India

^ mobile phone shop posters in Landour Bazaar, Mussoorie

In 1996, Steve Ediger arrived to take on the Herculean task of bringing Woodstock into the modern age of computers and communications, just as India itself was making a great technological leap forward. 10+ years later, what wonders have been wrought!

  • Every staff home, office and dorm now has one or more phones, routed through a central switchboard – and, generally, they work.
  • This year, a new VOIP systems makes international calls dirt cheap: Rs. 3 (7 US cents) per minute. The drawback is that the kids can call out from the dorm phones only during the limited hours when they are not in school, at activities, or studying, and usually have to wait their turn to do so. With families spread around the globe, this makes for a small window of time in which they can talk to their information-starved parents (who, in this day and age, expect to be able to stay in constant touch with their kids).
  • Every staff home and residence has satellite television. Those who wish also have their own DVD players, stereos, iPod speakers, etc.
  • Most staff homes are now on campus generators, so Mussoorie’s uneven power supply doesn’t fry out all that delicate electronic equipment.
  • Most staff and many students now have cellphones. (Kids are not allowed to carry or use them during the schoolday.)

mobile phone charging station, India

^ mobile phone charging station at the Barista coffee shop in Kulri Bazaar, Mussoorie.

And, of course, Woodstock is online. In 1998 I helped to create the school’s first website (the site has come a long way since then), and I trained staff members in web basics such as AltaVista search – on a connection that was so slow we had to turn off images in the browser in order to load a page at all.

Today the school has about 300 computers connected to the Internet, sharing only 2 mbps of bandwidth among them. This is (barely) enough for general business and school use, but can’t stand up to today’s video-heavy websites, especially at those times of day when students are free to surf, email, etc.

The problem is that bandwidth is still expensive in India (for lack of competition): it would cost at least $100,000 per year to get 8 mbps (ADSL) for the whole campus; by comparison, I can reliably get 7 mbps at my home in Italy for €39 per month. At these prices, no wonder India lags in Internet adoption.

This situation is bound to improve: perhaps the long-promised fibre-optic cable to the school will finally be delivered, or maybe WiMax will come to India (this would be a better long-term solution than cables, which in rural India are frequently inadvertently dug up or cut). I look forward to the day when both the school and the country can enjoy the full benefits of this critical piece of modern infrastructure.

Steve Ediger with Woodstock servers

^ 2004: Steve Ediger shows off his server room. I trust my Sun colleagues will note what is wrong with this picture! ; )

article: Woodstock School: Education for a World of Difference on Dell/EMC Storage (go to page 22)

^ top: even Jabarkhet has satellite


this post is now part of a series: Global Telecommunications: A Personal History