net.wars: The message is the medium

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 02 April 2004

"Why," Dj asked one day about a year and a half ago, "can't I text message my telephone at home?" (The question was emailed; but I like to imagine him saying "Text home" in plaintive E.T. tones.)

Wendy M Grossman

It seemed like a logical question. Lots of home phones were digital by then and had mobile phone-sized screens. The phone networks were clearly connected. Why not?

Especially since it's a matter of survival. Long distance revenues are dropping to zero, and all the traditional telcos are scrambling to figure out how to make money in a world of broadband and Voice over IP, along with increased competition from everyone from cable companies to wireless operators. In the US, AT&T has been in the news recently because of the diaspora of its best researchers, the sad break-up of a lab that for 50 years was a proud flagship of American research.

In the UK BT, unlike AT&T and its successors, had local, per-minute call revenues (most American phone companies had flat-rate local plans). These have also diminished rapidly as BT tries to compete with the cable companies, who have given consumers flat-rate local and national calling for the first time. Charges remain for the increasingly popular non- geographical numbers, but international calling rates have dropped so much that it's now sometimes cheaper to call San Francisco from London than it is from New York. The most expensive calls now are to UK mobile phones.

Plenty of people already have a mobile phone and broadband (often from a cable company) but no fixed-line service at all. Though, to be fair, research shows that, at least in the US, about 82 percent of wireless customers are served by companies owned by wireline suppliers.

There are disadvantages, of course. In an emergency, it's nice to have a phone wired to the wall that can't be taken out by a local power outage. It's also a bit expensive if you have to dial up using your mobile phone to reach the Internet when your broadband goes down. But for today's connected, peripatetic lifestyles, it's the logical way to go. Especially if you expect people you want to hear from to text you at all sorts of odd hours, so that you have to have your mobile phone about your person at all times anyway. If the fixed-line telephone companies are going to have a future, they must adopt some or all of the features of mobile phones and networks.

We'll leave aside the likelihood that a text message sent to a home phone is likely to be as hard to find as a mobile phone with its ring turned off. Actually, what I personally want is one of these

Anyway, it was logical to put Dj's question to Peter Cochrane, former head of BT Research.

"They thought of it years ago and decided not to do it," he answered (by email, back in October 2002). "You need a new fixed phone - and then multiple extensions can be a problem - and you also need additional switch software."

Times change, and phones change with the times.

About six weeks ago, BT bribed a load of technology journalists to a press conference at the top of their tower by promising a new digital home phone in return for any old phone they cared to bring in and dump. (Such is the life of a freelance technology journalist these days that reportedly some were scouring flea markets for an old £1 banger they could exchange. We'll say the stories were apocryphal.) BT wanted to show off new consumer products, including a fax machine (how quaint), some networking multimedia computers (less than impressive, given Hauppauge's networked media boxes that will play MP3s, video files downloaded from - CLIPs, video CLIPS, and pictures on a standard television), and a prattle of new phones.

"See?" said the BT marketing person demonstrating the Diverse X10 they were giving us. "You can put the SIM from your mobile phone in there and it will copy all the phone numbers off it." Very cool. Labour-saving, even. Only a churlish person would point out that the numbers you need when you're out are often not the same ones you need at home.

"So," I said, thinking of Dj, partly as a joke. "Why can't we text them?"

"You can."

"You can send these phones SMS messages?"


And lo and behold, folks, it's true: SMS is coming to the fixed-line world. They were expecting it to start in late March. The service BT will trial includes speech synthesis, so that people who don't have SMS-enabled fixed-line phones can still get messages. I imagine BT Call Minder informing me in Stephen Hawking tones that somebody's going to be late for dinner.

In the end, of course, much greater integration is going to be needed, of network as well as phone, so that everyone has a personal phone that connects to whatever the most efficient or lowest-cost network is available at the time. Walk into your house, and it joins your wireless broadband network or your fixed-line service if you have it; walk outside and it picks up your mobile service. Or, increasingly, all of those things merge into one seamless network and you pay one flat-rate bill at the end of the month.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).