Most of the time, the much-ballyhooed Disruption that tech entrepreneurs and characters on “Silicon Valley” are always wheezing on about produces great results. Think the World Wide InterWeb of Things and Stuff that has allowed our refrigerators to talk to our coffee makers. Amazing! Or my Kindle that allows me to take long business trips to China without eating up my entire 50 lbs/23 kgs of luggage allowance with Very Heavy Books in English. Because, you know, clean underwear.
I would posit, however, that in one regard, Tech Disruption has failed us dismally. I am, of course, referring to Phone Call Quality. Oh. My. God.
Now let’s be clear, the Cellular Smart iCool Phone Thingy we all have in our pocket or purse or surgically attached to our palm is awesome. I mean “Star Trek” communicator awesome. With all sorts of new bells and whistles and apps that creepily recognize your face coming out every day, they’re almost “Star Trek” tricorders, for crying out loud.
But the call quality is awful most of the time. Admit it. When’s the last time you made it through an entire 10-minute phone conversation without saying, “Sorry, you broke up there” or “Can you move back to that spot where you were a minute ago” or “ARRRRRGHHHH!!!” I cannot believe there isn’t a technological solution for this, but the Geekiverse has yet to produce a reliable one.
It isn’t like I want to trade in my snazzy rubbable iPhone for a pink Princess model connected to copper wires. Although the Princess phone was kinda cool, especially if it had an extra-long cord you could take out of your parents’ bedroom and thread under your own bedroom door and then, you know, stay on for like an hour talking to your new girlfriend. “You hang up first. No YOU hang up first. Let’s hang up together.”
But I digress.
No, the smart phone is a wondrous thing for one Very Big Reason—mobile data. That I can get Google, Google Maps, and Google Street View in the palm of my hand almost anywhere in the world is something I very much appreciate. In the aforementioned China, I used Google Translate to give instructions to Beijing cab drivers and buy train tickets in Shanghai. Of course, many of the cab drivers were illiterate and I had to flag down an educated-looking pedestrian to read my iPhone to them. But still, two thumbs up for mobile data.
But the call quality. I keep coming back to that. Kay-Kay and I Cut the Cord when we moved back to Virginia after five years in NYC purgatory. We felt Very Enlightened and Techno-Cool. For the most part, it’s all good. Except for phone calls.
We don’t live on top of a Himalayan peak or in the middle of the Gobi Desert, for goodness sake. We live 1.5 miles from the First English Settlement that Stuck Around. There are thousands of houses filled with human people in a 5-mile radius of us. And we can’t make reliably intelligible cell phone calls.
This presents more than an annoyance. We do business from our house, the both of us, and our ability to make reliable voice phone calls is therefore rather important. I have my iPhone set to switch to VOIP over our wireless router when in range, but even that fails half the time. For important conference calls in particular, I dial in through Skype or FaceTime audio. Not good.
I’m willing to be corrected in comments—please do so if you have different recollections—but I don’t recall ever having bad voice quality on a local or domestic long distance call Back In The Day. If you were on the phone during an electrical storm, you might get a little crackling, but you could still hear fine. Overseas long distance was always iffy, but we were talking over underwater telephone cables and/or first-generation communication satellites.
That said, we certainly paid a whole lot more. The monthly phone bill could be shocking, for sure. You paid for your local phone line—your number, as it were—usually as a basic rate for one phone. Additional smaller rates were added on for each extension. There were also lots of arcane additional charges and taxes that absolutely no one understood, except the phone company that was very pleased indeed with most of them.
I grew up in a big three-story Victorian and we had two phones: one in the kitchen and one in my parents’ bedroom upstairs. If anyone was in the downstairs family room—what most people called “the basement” back then—somebody shouted down the stairs, “Jefffff! Phooone!!!” and you had to schlep up the stairs to get it. That was pretty much everybody’s house. It was prime hallway gossip at the high school if some young lady’s parents got her an extension phone in her bedroom. This was considered the very height of parental overindulgence, sure to result in a Spoiled Daughter You Should Never Attempt to Date. Or so went the conventional wisdom amongst us guys—who NEVER would have asked for anything so girlie-girlie as our own telephone.
And the long distance charges. Yikes. My adult children have no real memory of Paying A Lot For Long Distance. Almost everyone has an unlimited calling plan on their cell phone that allows you to call anywhere in the USA and Canada without giving it any more thought than dialing up Aunt Hazel three streets over. In the last decade, international calling has gotten remarkably cheap to/from most every decent country. For most places, you can now pay $5/day when traveling internationally and you get “cloned” service exactly like you have at home, voice-text-data.
This was not the case forty years ago. Those of us Of A Certain Age vividly recall paying for long distance by the minute—usually a big flat-rate connection fee for the first three minutes, then a smaller per-minute charge. And oh how the taxi meter kept running on those long distance calls. Kay-Kay and I were engaged our last year in college. “Awwwww,” I hear you saying. But she was in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and I was in New Orleans, Louisiana. “Oh sh*t,” I hear any of you over age 45 saying. Yep, separated-location romance, college-level alcohol consumption, and long-distance charges were a very expensive combination.
Let me put our anxious rationing of long-distance minutes in perspective for whippersnappers born any time after Nixon resigned with another personal example. When I was doing my junior year in Scotland, I called my parents exactly once per month. Collect, which meant an operator would place the call, then ask whomever answered if they would accept the charges. The call went something like this, “Hi Mom! Everything’s great. Still love Scotland. Going to France over spring break—send money. Miss you, best to Dad. Bye.” And that would cost $20. Kay-Kay went the entire year without calling home, her parents being on a tighter household budget than mine. Mostly, we wrote a lot of those flimsy blue tissue-paper-thin aerogramme letters.
So yes, using a phone has gotten both much cheaper and much more useful. But for our old school expensive land-lined phone service, we got impeccable, crystal clear voice quality. And so I ask, oh Smartypants Denizens of the Valley of Silicon, why can’t we have all the cool smart phone stuff AND really good voice quality, too?
Please? Can we… What, you can’t hear me? Wait. I’ll move to a better spot…