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BLOG: The wireless revolution's forgotten victim: The phone itself

Galen Gruman | Sept. 2, 2013
Wireless devices are making landlines less reliable, but the new voice technologies aren't ready for prime time either

I broke down this week and replaced my cordless phone yet again, this time with a 1.8GHz system using the DECT 6 protocol. That keeps me away from both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi spectrums. My boss said I was crystal-clear during this week's call, and that head-splitting interference was gone. I may be good for a few years, and I get the bonus of a night-mode setting that shuts off the ringer automatically outside of work hours so that telemarketers and PR people who don't check callees' time zones no longer disturb me.

No one really cares about telephones these days. They're cheap, and phone service is increasingly a feature of your Internet or cable service. It doesn't appear there's been any investment in the old phone system for years, nor much in the cordless variety beyond the DECT protocol's development. (Note that DECT is not interoperable across brands.)

Yet VoIP's quality isn't that great; it's very easy to tell when someone is using a VoIP service rather than a real phone line: The call integrity often breaks down, causing stutters, echoes, and audio artifacts. Interestingly, the digital service from cable and phone providers, which is a form of VoIP, doesn't have these problems. Instead, it's those who run their VoIP over the Internet connection who have the quality issues, and yet charge as much as a regular phone provider does. Meanwhile, the VoIP conferencing providers' quality remains inferior to using a real phone, though better than the VoIP telephone service providers'.

When an industry is dying, it gets no investment, and that's the case with standard phone lines. Yet the Internet-based alternatives are worse, both in quality and complexity of operation. Cellphones are inconvenient to use as a primary business phone: You need to keep them charged, signal quality is unreliable (I have colleagues whose cellphones don't work in their home offices, for example), they get hot when used for a while, and many plans cost a fortune to get unlimited minutes, which is no issue with standard phone service.

We're in a period where the new technology isn't really ready for prime time, and the old technology is left as is. As more and more devices go wireless — Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and so on — the interference issues will only get worse. Maybe it's a good thing the younger generations text rather than call. The way things are going, I'm not sure how much longer calling will be a real option for regular communication. That's too bad, because there's an immediacy and reality to a phone call that messaging can't replace. Or maybe that's just the view of someone who grew up in a different world.


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