What could be more outdated than the analog local loop that connects us to the circuit-switched telephone network? What could be more welcome than digital, untethered Wi-Fi access to low-cost and location-independent VOIP service?
Thoughtful answers to those questions must address issues of infrastructure reliability, public policy and international cooperation. Anything as pervasive as telephone service—and anything thats had so long a time to grow and evolve—is bound to be more complex and more difficult to supplant than it seems to the casual user.
The infrastructure disruptions of this seasons Gulf Coast hurricanes have revived respect for communications tools that had been dismissed of late as obsolete. Many people dont think about the fact that ordinary telephone service continues to operate when electrical power grids fail—but Wi-Fi and VOIP users, depending on darkened desktop PCs, short-lived laptop batteries and Wi-Fi routers lacking backup power supplies, have a silent opportunity to contemplate that benefit.
Access to services such as 911 also benefits from precisely the intrinsic knowledge of location that Wi-Fi and VOIP advocates are quick to dismiss as an artifact of old ways.
Some wireless packet networks, such as RIMs BlackBerry-based e-mail, distinguished themselves during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Others, such as cellular phone service, did worse on 9/11 and were disabled by infrastructure damage in the Gulf Coast storms. Ironically, ham radio operators—many of them using the long-distance capability of high-frequency wavelengths, the ones most vulnerable to interference from proposed broadband-on-power-line schemes—turned out to be the glue that held interagency communications together in storm-devastated regions.
Other issues must also be considered. Taxes on telephone service support communications for the disabled. Governments jealously guard their revenues from communications across their borders. Technocrats should therefore take care not to focus too narrowly on technical criteria; users should not underestimate the proven capability of what they now have.