March 01, 2004
The New Phone System
Clay Shirky is usually a sharply on point analyst, but he seems to have slightly missed the point in hisVoIP - Plan A vs Plan B piece. Shirky's concern is technology that allows you to place phone calls through your computer (VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol), and the threat it places on the old phone system. "Plan A is 'Replace the phone system slowly and from within," Plan B is far more radical: 'Replace the phone system. Period.'" But what Shirky ignores is that Plan C is already long in effect, and successful. The dominant phone system has already been replaced, not by VoIP, but by mobile phones.
I've been using my cell phone as my sole phone number for close to 3 years now without a problem. More importantly, every single person of my generation or younger I know who has moved in the past couple years has made the same choice. The cellular phone has rendered the old phone company into a vestigial organ, albeit a large slowly dying one. In countries that never had great wired phone infrastructures in the first place the process is even more dramatic, large chunks of the globe are going straight to cell phones leaving the old phone monopolies in the dust.
Mobile phone versus landline? Its not really a choice. A landline might be slightly more reliable, maybe. And it maybe slightly cheaper during peak hours, maybe. But really, why bother when you already have a phone you carry with you everywhere, and turn on and off at whim? One with a phone number you've had for years and doesn't get any phone solicitations. A phone you can answer while sending IMs and seemlessly continue the conversation out the door and onward to your next destination. Would you rather give up your home phone or cell? The choice is pretty clear for most people. The most important service the local phone companies offer nowadays is access to the internet.
Now the old phone companies won't just disappear, like Western Union, where you can still send telegrams, they will evolve while continuing to offer old services to a shrinking pool of customers. VoIP is a legitimate business too, although I highly suspect it will never get anywhere near the size of either the old phone monopolies or the new mobile phone oligarchies.
And there we have the new problems. While most places in the world no longer are stuck with one phone provider, few (if any) have more then a half dozen mobile providers. A decade and change ago VoIP might have represented an important challenge to the communications power structure. But now its a footnote and the power structure has shifted to wireless, potentially generating a whole new set of issues.Posted by Abe at March 1, 2004 09:08 PM