The Evolution of the Traditional Telephone (service)

The day of the traditional land line phone service is almost over. In today’s mobile phone-driven world, many people have stopped using “land line” phones entirely. However, a cheaper land line, equivalent to cell phones, has arrived a few years ago using voice over internet protocol technology and known to many simply as VoIP.

What is so special about VoIP? In order to understand the answer let’s first look at the evolution of the traditional phone and telephone service. The telephone has actually been around longer than power grids—which is why traditional land-line phones still work when the power is out. Aside from major breakthroughs every 30 years or so, phone service and those who provided it changed relatively little until the 1980s  when the US government broke up the monopolies controlling the phone system. That’s when things started changing fast.

Take a look at this infograph to see what we mean (click image):


 So, the telephone was invented in 1876. Because of patent laws at the time, Alexander Graham Bell owned the concept of the phone, not just his design. Poor Elisha Gray lost out entirely while Bell perfected his phone and figured out how to produce it affordably. Between 1900 and 1910, the number of phones went from thousands to millions, and by 1915 people could call across the continent. But the phone itself did not change much—just the number of phones.

Rotary-dial telephones came out in 1919—the biggest advance in phone technology since their invention in 1876. They enabled switching systems to be installed that made the process of phoning someone a little more automatic. By 1946, commercial mobile phones were available, though they were not exactly what we would call mobile. Direct long distance calling came in 1951 to completely automate the process of making a call. Still, the phone itself did not change.

In 1963, the touch-tone telephone was introduced. Its technology made the infamous automated phone menus possible, but mostly improved the dialing speed and did nothing to improve sound quality over its predecessor. Phones still could not transmit high or low pitches, leaving people straining to hear sounds that simply weren’t there. That’s why ‘pear’ and ‘tear’ sound the same on a traditional phone. The traditional phone cannot hear the difference, so therefore you can’t.

The Advent of Voice-over-Internet-Protocol

The big breakthrough came in the mid-90s with the launch of the World Wide Web. At the time, engineers at traditional phone companies and computer networking companies argued that voice would never be able to travel on packet networks such as the Internet. Nevertheless, a small company in Israel named VocalTec Communications (disclaimer: Phone.com EVP & CTO Alon Cohen is VocalTec’s co- founder and Ari Rabban Phone.com’s CEO was a senior executive for VocalTec during the industries formative years) released its “Internet Phone” VoIP product in  February 1995—the same year that Yahoo was launched. Businesses quickly started adopting the new type of phone service because of its flexibility and major cost reductions for long distance and overseas calls.

Digital cellular networks also appeared—in 1993 to be precise. But they ran into spectrum limitations that kept them from improving their sound quality. Thus, cell phones still had the same or worse sound quality as a regular phone but offered mostly the advantage of portability over traditional phones. There was still a need for a type of phone with clearer sound.

The Cutting Edge of Communication Technology

Soon, software makers were figuring out how to harness the processing power of computers and broadband data network proliferation to improve sound quality. The big game-changer was Skype, which came out in 2003. Skype initially gave computers the ability to place calls over the Internet with twice the sound spectrum of a regular phone, and later even added video. This was huge in improving sound quality, and it set a new standard for communication! It was interesting that the main problem solved by Skype was not related to the transport of the audio, which were solved by VocalTec, but rather to punching holes in the newly installed firewalls at every home and router which incorporated technology Skype adopted from the file sharing business.

 

The key innovation in the newly formed VoIP protocols was their ability to adopt new standards for voice quality while traditional telephony was (and still is) limited to one or two worldwide standards that only provide “toll quality” which is lower audio quality than AM radio.

Skype demonstrated that “wideband audio” which covers twice the range of the “toll quality” voice and has huge advantages. In other words, HD Voice phones capture and reproduce most of the sounds you can hear at near FM radio quality! HD Voice technology minimizes phone-caused communication difficulties. Mishearing a caller due to the technology is far less likely. VoIP technology was created to take advantage of those new audio qualities and is only now beginning to be realized.

HD VoIP depends on two things—the wide data bandwidth of modern Internet systems and better sound equipment. With an HD phone, you can make phone calls with better sound quality than traditional telephony. You are able to hear everything the other person says clearly, and they understand you perfectly. The days of trying to interpret half a sound are over. All you need is an HD phone and high-speed Internet and a counterpart that has the same. It is interesting to note that HD Voice does not consume more data bandwidth from the network than Toll Quality voice, but to work, it requires more than the slow dial-up connections used by early Internet users.

Better yet, with the newly offered data rates by cellular networks, you can get HD VoIP on your smart phone today. Instead of using your smart phone’s regular narrowband call feature, you can download a wideband-capable software application compatible with Phone.com. You will then be able to understand every word of every phone call. Say goodbye to uncertainty and hello to true clear communication!

This industry transition is by no means complete, and this blog post is too short to include many other developments in the industry and in related industries (as well as regulatory changes) that will lead to a complete revolution.  One thing is certain. It is not going to take 100 plus years. Most likely less than 20 but you can expect constant change as our industry evolves!

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