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Telephone Problems Before Personal Smartphones

Updated: Jul 11, 2021


Our smartphones are ever-present, ever-useful, and ever-distracting, to the point that sometimes we simply can't imagine life without them. But it wasn't very long ago that corded landlines were the only form of telephone we used, and that created a number of interesting (and frustrating) problems.

To begin with, landlines of yesteryear came with charges. Lots of them. Take a look at the long-distance call invoice below; talking with others outside of your area code could be an expensive endeavor. The ironic thing is, making long-distance calls hasn't necessarily become any cheaper--but telephone companies have become smarter about the way they charge us for the privilege. Now, we buy expensive "unlimited" plans for our smartphones, knowing full well that we rarely make enough long-distance calls to make the plan worth the extra cost.


Scanned image of AT&T phone bill


     Another unique problem of the landline age was that of connectivity. Suppose you wanted to send a Christmas message to a friend. If they were taking another call, a busy signal would block your call. Sometimes, the person you were trying to reach simply didn't pick up. If you sent your message via fax, the cheerful greeting might be received by the wrong person. This made it nearly impossible to send timely greetings without a great deal of advance planning. As seen in the invoice above, AT&T had a novel solution to this problem: they would send a personalized greeting to your chosen recipient at the time of your choosing, and they would keep trying until they got through. The reason the pricetag of $9.95 seems ludicrous today is that we now have something much better---also known as email.

A third concern (nearly non-existent today) in the 1990s was phone-line congestion. Although the memo pictured below was written by an OBEC employee who is no longer with us, it is still a timely and thoughtful reminder of how much we have to be thankful for. Now that OBEC uses VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) and many of us have personal mobile devices, we receive nearly every call that comes through.  However, the memo below makes it clear that even before smartphones, employees were blurring the line between personal calls and business calls.


Scanned image of Interoffice Memorandum


          The memo above references the memo below, which pointed out the problem with sending and receiving facsimiles when the line was busy--there was no "answering machine" for fax messages. This memo reminds us that the way we use our time affects those around us. It clearly demonstrates that smartphones weren't the first to create the problem of conducting personal business on company time, but they've certainly  exacerbated it. Take a moment today to think about your use of company resources for personal use. How can you improve? How can you set a good example for others? Conflicting telephone calls aren't going to disappear--but they can certainly be mitigated with a little effort and consideration.


Scanned image of Interoffice Memorandum


     Looking at these old memos (and invoice) makes me think about how blessed I am to be living in the Twenty-First Century. Yes, there are "wars and rumors of wars," just as there have always been. But telephone congestion and fax transmission problems are a thing of the past. Aren't you thankful for that?

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