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Another Perspective


Hans Christian Andersen, the fabulous Dane, was born 200 years ago, on April 2, 1805.  Hans Christian Ørsted, another Dane, was nearly 28 at the time.  His brother, Anders Sandøe Ørsted, was not quite 27.  The elder Ørsted, a physicist, discovered electromagnetism; the younger, more interested in the humanities, settled for becoming Denmark's third prime minister.  Andersen, in his way, had the gifts of both.  His stories speak to the soul in words a child can understand; yet he also appreciated science: He knew in many ways what makes communications work.

Hans Christian Andersen
Some things written in Denmark

In 1859, 100 years before AT&T's Western Electric produced the Princess telephone, Andersen published a very short piece entitled Two Brothers, about the Ørsteds, and another, Children's Prattle, about the gifted sculptor, Bertel Thorwaldsen.  In both these stories, Andersen expressed his love of the egalitarianism and opportunity that had arisen in Denmark during his lifetime, as the country evolved from monarchy to constitutional monarchy.

Many talented Danes who in former times would have been trapped in the lower strata of Danish society by the accident of their birth, found opportunities for education and self-betterment.  Andersen's stories helped infuse the children of Denmark, and eventually of the whole world, with a sense of influence over the course of one's life that simply did not exist in the Scandinavia of living memory.

But Andersen's message is enormously richer than a mere call for personal achievement.  His work advocates an ethical posture, one in which ambition, when fulfilled, does not turn into pride, one in which accomplishment must not fester into arrogance, one in which advancement does not excuse disdain for or even disregard of roots and family.

Not all of Andersen's 168 published tales directly take on the issues that have guided the formative years of children; some are merely amusements, others expressions of his keen observations about the nature of people and the world around them.

An example of this is The Princess and the Pea, published in 1835.  In this story, with which you are most likely familiar, a prince searches for a real princess to marry, and is besieged by many applicants who claim to be real princesses.  The prince's wise mother tests a would-be bride with the aid of a single pea hidden at the bottom of a stack of bedding.  An unlikely-looking candidate is sent to sleep on this ingeniously designed bed, but fails to get any rest because she is far too sensitive to rest on the bed with its hidden message.  This sensitivity is the mark of a real princess.

Hans Christian Ørsted
This Dane electrified the poles

The Princess and the Pea, then, is a story about communications and particularly about what scientific types call the signal-to-noise ratio.  The key to getting the message across was not the magnitude of the message itself, for it was pea-sized.  Rather, successful communication occurred because the princess was able to discern a signal through all the bedding.

The transmission of electrical signals down long wires, which defined the age of telecommunications, became a commercial reality in the same year The Princess and the Pea began to delight children.  In 1835, Samuel F.  B.  Morse built on work with electromagnets done by Joseph Henry and William Sturgeon to create the telegraph.  The scientific foundation Henry's and Sturgeon's work was, of course, the widely publicized discovery, in 1820, of electromagnetism by Hans Christian Ørsted (who apparently did not know that Gian Domenico Romagnosi had previously observed the same phenomenon without making waves in academia).

Telegraphy took the world by storm and, after Guglielmo Marconi figured out how to make telegraphy wireless in 1876, (a development that was almost simultaneously accomplished by Nikola Tesla and Alexander Popov), radio communications soon enabled the world to take on storms at sea.  Andersen never lived to experience wireless telegraphy; he died in 1875.  But the lesson in The Princess and the Pea, has remained the driving force behind progress in telecommunications.  The electromechanical repeaters of early telegraphy were eventually replaced by vacuum tubes, the tubes by transistors.  Now, analog transmission is giving way to digital alternatives.  All must sense signals amid noise in order to work.

However important invention might be, the development of new technologies is only one part of the story of telecommunications.  In this practical world of ours, telecoms is also a business, and a very big one at that.  For Americans, the point at which marketing overtook engineering as a factor in the telecom race came in 1959, when the 500 gave way to the Princess.  (The 500 was the familiar, chunky dial desk telephone first brought to market by AT&T in 1949; it survived for decades, even after a touch-tone version, called the 1500, was introduced in 1963.)

The Princess was much smaller and more decorative than the 500.  At the time it was introduced, Western Electric, which made AT&T's telephones, couldn't even figure out how to get a ringer into the small phone's body.  For four years, until 1963, customers who installed a Princess had to get a separate gadget with a ringer in it so they could tell that a call was coming in.  But that didn't stop the phone from selling like hotcakes.

As the Princess caught on, electromechanical telephone networks were approaching the end of their viability, as were the tube-based apparatus used to transmit calls over long distances.  Rural America still depended on live operators to connect every phone call, and urban phone routing systems were based on switches that used solenoids, levers, and ratchets.

Even today, nearly all the telephone systems worldwide are based on analog transmission technology for that critical last mile, even though digital switching systems manage call routing.  But the analog system has been supplemented by DSL, a technology that enables a pair of copper wires to carry digital data (in the form of an encoded analog signal at radio frequencies) at the same time as it carries ordinary voice signals.  The next step may be to drop out the low-frequency voice signals entirely, and send voice message more or less the same way connections are made between the computers of telephone users with DSL and the rest of the Internet: Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP.

Basically, VoIP, which may eventually become voip, pronounced voyup rather than vee-oh-eye-pea, promises to make telephony less costly and also to provide a number of services that are either impossible or impractical for prior telephone network technologies to deliver.

princess phone
Princess Phone
Dead ringer

VoIP service is already on offer from major carriers in some urban areas and from independents all over the place.  In New York, for instance, Verizon, the dominant local carrier, provides VoIP but still requires a customer to pay for an analog line with dial tone, even if that line gets no use.  That could change as cable operators begin to offer less costly plans, but it's too early to say just when this might occur.

VoIP is attractive, but it hasn't quite taken off yet.  It is a bit early for many customers to rely entirely on DSL, which is not as dependable as analog telephone service.  Business customers with many lines who move the bulk of their service to VoIP can probably find a balance of risk and costs that suits them, if they can get adequate DSL bandwidth or if they have broadband digital trunk lines in place for data transmission anyway.

One advantage of VoIP is lower cost, at least for consumers and small business users; the jury is still out for medium and large business users who can negotiate better rates for analog service than ordinary folk.  But the consumer market seems to be pointing the way here, just as the Princess phone paved the way for many changes in the look, feel, and functionality of office phone systems.

Some hard numbers show why VoIP is catching the interest of consumers.  In New York, a home VoIP account with unlimited nationwide long distance service is about $30 a month and DSL running at speeds of up to 3,000 kb/sec down and 768 kb/sec up doubles the cost.  A basic dialtone service, required by Verizon, can add another $10 to the monthly bill.  International calls from VoIP accounts timed, but rates are well under half the price of the same calls made from analog lines.  For example, consumers in New York with analog lines pay Verizon at least 8 cents a minute to call the UK on an analog line; that drops to 3 cents for VoIP accounts.

VoIP sound quality may not be as good as analog quality, however, and customers who use one DSL connection for data and VoIP will notice this when simultaneously making a call and moving large blocks of data.  While the equipment provided by Verizon tries to reserve more than enough bandwidth for VoIP even when data transmission is underway, the scheme is imperfect.  While Verizon likes to boast about the quality of its residential DSL service, the actual bandwidth available can diminish, sometimes markedly, during peak usage hours, which would be evenings in most residential areas and business hours in commercial districts.

As it stands, analog telephone technology, which can detect and clarify a pea of signal even if it is underneath a pile of bedding, can still deliver better performance more of the time than VoIP based on DSL connectivity.  Anyone who uses a mobile phone, which is almost certainly running in a pure digital mode, is well aware of the deleterious effect on call quality when signals are weak or the phone is used in crowded signal areas.  VoIP uses different modulation than does mobile telephony and also uses a different set of transmission protocols, but the effect of reduced bandwidth on signal quality is similar.  Poor call quality is at best annoying and at worst simply unacceptable.

Signal quality isn't the only problem afflicting VoIP.  Some of the customers who might benefit from unlimited nationwide calling are telemarketers.  The VoIP world may soon suffer a plague of junk callers, and the targets of these calls will be customers with either analog or IP phone connections.  There's already a name for this, spit, for spam over Internet telephony.

Another issue that has a counterpart in email country is spoofing; it is very easy to disguise the origin of VoIP calls, and so far it's not clear that the law or the carriers are up to the task of providing reliable call origin identification.  There will be no shortage of scammers attempting to do by phone what phishers do by email.

Still, VoIP is probably like the principal character in Andersen's The Ugly Duckling, and in time, we expect, it will mature into a beautiful swan.  But try not to believe everything the vendors tell you.  Remember the The Emperor's New Suit.

— Hesh Wiener April 2005

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