time961 writes "Older readers may remember a time when telephone calls sounded good. The engineering genius of Bell Labs allowed telephone companies to wrest exceptional results from the meager 3 KHz of allotted bandwidth: calls were crisp and quiet with no time lag, the parties could talk simultaneously, and quality was, roughly, related to distance: when I called my next door neighbor, my electrons zipped downtown at nearly the speed of light and zipped right back out again. Eventually, even transcontinental long-distance worked very well--remember when Sprint advertised their Fiber Optic Network by saying "You can hear a pin drop"?
Of course, that was when telephones connected one individual person in one place to another individual in an equally fixed location, using hardwired equipment that could do nothing more (or less) than place and receive calls. Today, we have a myriad of telephone-related services, some unimagined 25 years ago: ubiquitous mobile phones, speakerphones everywhere, calls placed by computer, trivial conference calling, etc. And we get many of these services at amazingly low prices, or even for free. However, it seems like communication quality has plummeted as variety has expanded. Theodore Vail must be spinning in his grave.
For example, people are embracing the "mobile only" lifestyle, yet voice quality from one cellphone to another is often abysmal. This is understandable, say, if both parties are outside in noisy environments, but it's only a little better when both are in quiet, empty rooms--it still sounds like we're gargling marbles. Worse, if we try to talk over each other, all is lost, and we have to wait a second or two before trying to speak again (unless the call gets randomly dropped, in which case the wait is longer). It's not as bad as CB radio, but it's sure not like hearing a pin dropping. Even local calls, apparently between landlines, are worse. I may have a hard copper connection back to my central office, but by the time my voice has been digitized, turned into packets, and sent through routers in East Overshoe, Nebraska before finally getting back to my neighbor's "Triple Play" cable modem phone, it, too, is a low-quality, noisy, choppy imitation of what the Bell System once provided. And speakerphones--what is it with high-ranking executives who, alone in their empty offices, say "I'm gonna put you on speaker" and then end up sounding like they're in a submarine? Are they seeking plausible deniability on the grounds that the other party couldn't actually understand what they said?
But that's all whining for background. My question is, is this situation inevitable? Can it get better? Will it? Are we just in a period where new technologies haven't quite been tamed, much as the early steamship era was punctuated by boiler explosions? Or is the tradeoff of service variety for quality something that can't be avoided (or undone)? Obviously, there's a huge collection of technologies underlying modern telecommunications, and they operate and interact in complex and mysterious ways, so no one factor is to blame. But is that technology even capable of providing good voice quality? What are the technical roadblocks? Is it primarily an economic issue? What are the economic obstacles? Conversation is such a basic human activity, it seems important to have the technology work better."