The Fall of the Traditional Telephone

Phones, like any other medium we use to communicate, are a form of social media. In fact, any time we communicate to each other than face-to-face, that is… (say it with me)… social media.

Pen and paper, the public writing walls in Pompeii, the Gutenberg press, Elizabethan aristocratic poetry, Morse code and telegraphs, and even that pesky morning newspaper that once hit your front door but now lives in an app…. all forms of social media. I highly recommend Tom Standage’s book Writing on the Wall, available at your local, independent bookseller – it dives a bit deeper into the history of social media in very insightful ways.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Reading-the-Writing-on-Pompeiis-Walls.html

Graffiti on the walls of Pompeii. From The Art Archive / Alamy, via an article by The Smithsonian’s writer Kristin Ohlsonon.

Modern telecommunication services like Skype, FaceTime, Google-Hangouts, and those cheap cable phones (VoIP) are the best examples of how much we have revolutionized our communications. We can type and speak to each other at the same time, and even see each other – or all three! Long-distance calls are cheap and three-way calling is a synch with VoIP phones. However, all of these sources rely on several vital resources: power lines, cable lines, and/or wireless routers and voice/data centers.

How??? What.

That’s right, your Grandma’s phone didn’t need a cable line, just a phone line. The mechanism powering her phone is simple, just a couple copper lines controlled by the phone company’s circuit board that connected her to who she called with a voice-to-electric-signal conversion technology created by Alexander Graham Bell. Our contemporary dependencies, fueled by the cable company (some of these companies were once just phone companies, remember?), make our life easier… but not if the power is out.

An analog phone.

An analog phone.

When the power does go out, like as a result of a major disaster, that old analog phone line still works (permitted the buried, copper cables didn’t break, an unlikely occurrence anway). You can still make calls!

But, with a VoIP connected phone, you have to depend on two things both working: power (to charge the phone) and the cable line (to supply the call service). These are two things that are unlikely to hold up during a major disaster.

And that iPhone? That will not last you more than the end of a day. The voice and data towers could be destroyed, too. Or your phone will just die.

But the FCC likes you.

They do. They want to make sure that by 2018, we are all connected to and reliant upon the VoIP network, a cable network that allows calls and other data across internet lines. The old telephone system will be completely removed, says the FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wireless phones will still exist, and you should learn hoFCC Logow to tweet via SMS in order to broadcast your emergency request in times of limited data, or just learn what SMS is and how to use it. Understand, however, that wireless phones require batteries that must be charged, typically by an A/C outlet, and those will be scarce in a major disaster and/or loss of power. The towers may also be damaged, disallowing any connectivity.

What should I do?

Hang on to that old telephone company line if you still have it. Chances are you cannot get it as a new service – most companies do not offer it anymore. If you know of any, please respond in the comments below!

Here are some other tech-savvy ideas to keep you connected:

  1. Read my last post about using Twitter via SMS during an emergency, for starters, and heed the advice. Install other social media apps onto your wireless device if it allowed (Android and iPhone users can). Facebook is especially helpful because the people you will be broadcasting your message to are your friends and family, also known as people who probably actually care about your well-being.
  2. Consider a battery back-up option for your home phone. A recent call with Time Warner Cable said, however, that many of their telephone modems do not allow a battery back-up anymore. This is an important question to ask your cable company!
  3. Keep a pencil, pen, notepad, and tape in your home’s emergency kit. You may need to tape a note to your door letting people you are okay and to meet somewhere at a certain time, for example. You may also want to write down directions to the nearest shelter. The American Red Cross apps are fantastic at finding shelters and giving you information about what to do, either before, during, or after a disaster, by the way.
  4. Get a NOAA weather radio. Seriously though. It may be your only source of information during a major disaster.

There are many more concepts to explore. For further reading, consult the FCC website on “Emergency Communications.”  FEMA also has an excellent blog post about this too with far more detailed tips. I look forward to comments too, as always!

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