One Ringy Dingy

by Stuart Zipper

I’ve just come from a sojurn to Manhattan’s trendy South Street Seaport area, these days an emerging complex of upscale stores, cozy bistros, the posh Bridgewaters event hall, and even a dock with tall sailing ships. The last time I was in the area, some decades ago, the place was the site of the Fulton Street Fish market – America’s largest wholesale seafood market, filled with fish hawkers for more than 180 years. That market, which sometimes smelled as if it hadn’t been cleaned more than once in those 180 years, closed in 2005 and a redevelopment project that’s still in progress was started.

So what, you might ask, does that have to do with VoIP telephony which, after all, is the topic of this blog? I’m glad you asked. On my visit I stayed at the Best Western Seaport Inn, a fairly modest but very comfortable place whose virtue for me was that it is just a block or so away from the aforementioned Bridgewaters, where I was attending my niece’s wedding.

When I walked into the hotel there it was, gracing the lobby – an actual manual telephone switchboard, a device that dates back to the 1890s, when the Fulton Street Fish Market was still relatively young. Old-timers and TV history buffs may remember Lilly Tomlin’s routine as Ernestine the operator, manning a manual telephone switchboard, on the Laugh-In TV show from 1969-1973. Like the Fish Market, the manual switchboard survived well into the 20th century. Reportedly the very last one went out of service in 1983.

What replaced the manual switchboard started with electromechanical switches. The technology then progressed to electronic switches, with the first fully digital PBX unveiled by Stromberg Carlson in 1977 at a small press showing in Lake Mary, Florida (ah, memories – I was at that press conference).

Finally we get to today’s virtual PBX, the technology offered by VoIP companies such as Phone.com. Sorry Lilly – Ernestine the operator has been replaced by a virtual attendant.

Also significant is the way the phone system connection is made today. In the old days – really not so long ago – there was a pervasive physical connection between the caller and the person being called that was made by the plugboard that a manual switchboard consisted of, next by stepper motors on a frame making physical connections, and eventually via a series of gates on a bunch of semiconductors. But now with VoIP the connection is not pervasive. That’s a good thing, because the old way if the connection broke it was gone. In the architecture of today’s VoIP service, the routing is flexible. In the vernacular, the connection goes into and out of “the cloud,” and the exact path it takes is both irrelevant and can constantly change. That’s leading to ever more resilient service at far lower costs than traditional phone service.

Ah, but we have lost something. It’s the operator who utters the iconic phrase Lilly Tomlin made famous: “One Ringy Dingy, two Ringy Dingys…”

Stuart Zipper is currently a contributing editor to Communications Technology, a high tech business journalism consultant and freelancer, and the past Senior Editor of TelecomWeb news break.