Saturday, March 19, 2005

Oiga? ... Digame?

A Reuters story starts: "BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European and American culture differ in language, automobiles, sports and -- less obvious but no less important -- the way they use telephones."

Well, yes, but.

Reuters only mentions cell phones. The reason is that that's the only thing Europeans have. Last time I was in Romania, my host carried two. (Reuters is French.)

If you're reading this in Europe, you'll say, "Of course." If you're reading this in the US, you'll say, "Huh?"

Oh, there are land lines in Europe. They're just not worth using. They sound like tin cans connected with string.

They're also hard to get and expensive. In Romania, waiting time to install a new land line was about six months. In Russia, waiting time was over a year. Prices were many times higher than here.

It may surprise the non-American reader to know that a real barrier to cell-phone adoption here sound quality. We're used to better sound.
Cell phones are no worse here than in Europe, but land lines actually sound much better.

Much.

A San Francisco to New York call on a standard phone has no errors, and sound quality roughly equivalent to what you get out of a CD player.

I picked these cities because most Europeans will have heard of them, but it's not just big cities. It's true for calls between any two points in the U.S., and has been true for about forty years.

I also picked them because of distance. New York to San Francisco is roughly twice the distance from Paris to Moscow. Imagine picking up your phone in Beijing, dialing a number, having someone pick up in Moscow, and hearing them as clearly as if they were standing in front of you.

You can get phone service started and a phone line installed in a few days. You can buy phones, from a wide variety of competing vendors, in any department store. They'll all plug them into your R-442 phone jacks.

Prices? A New York-to-San-Francisco call will cost 3 to 5 cents a minute. Prices have dropped sharply, but when I was younger, a 3-minute cross country phone call still only cost a buck or two.

Calls within the same calling area are bundled into the basic service cost. I can make as many calls to Denver -- about 50 Km. away -- for as long as I want, for free.

This has had profound consequences.

Some are obvious. My mother's parents, who were born in the 1800s and died over 20 years ago, had phone number "1", because they had gotten the first phone in their small town.

That was then. Now, everyone living in the U.S. has always had a phone and used it freely. They've never been a luxury in living memory -- they're essentials in even the smallest communities.

Some consequences are less obvious.

Credit/debit cards took over from checks long ago, and cash is used much less here than in Europe. Every store has card readers at every counter. When I go through the checkout line at the grocery, I swipe my card through the reader to pay. The card reader calls the bank or the credit-card company, verifies the card, and posts the transaction, then approves my purchase for the store. Every gasoline pump has a card reader that does the same thing.

This whole system is possible because we take ubiquitous, cheap, easy-to-get, error-free phone lines for granted.

The reason? In the U.S., phone service is private, and competitive. In almost all other countries, governments run the PTT ("Post, Telephone, and Telegraph") service.

We use phones differently here because our history with phones has been so different. That will continue as long as Europe has government-run PTTs.

Addendum: A reader asks, "So why is cell use finally rising in the US?" Dropping prices, rising quality, and convenience. I gave up my land line when I could get a cell phone plan for not much more than it my land line cost, and the sound quality and coverage became pretty good. Why switch? People can call me at home, at work, or in my car on one number. A law in the U.S. now guarantees I can even keep that number whenever I switch providers.

So what's keeping land-lines alive? Internet access. Ironically, hard on the heels of telephony advances that are helping drive land-lines out of business is another telephony advance, VOIP -- the next big thing, which may bring them back, stronger than ever.

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