I didn’t realize it at the time, but during what would normally have been a routine phone call to discuss an editorial assignment, I was given a look at the future.
Back in the late ’90s, I was the editor of a technology supplement for The Washington Post. I had asked a number of people to write about the lunar mission of Apollo 11. One of those people was the legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.
I’d asked Clarke to participate because of his accurate descriptions of lunar activity in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I knew about his involvement in communications technology, that wasn’t on my mind at the time. But it was on Clarke’s mind.
During our brief conversation to discuss the article I asked him to write, he mentioned that he thought it was too bad making a call between Washington and his home in Sri Lanka was so difficult, not to mention expensive.
At that point, Clarke mentioned that he’d predicted that calls anywhere on Earth would be free, and that they would essentially become local calls. He then suggested that I go read his new novel, “2061: Odyssey Three,” published in 1987.
It was that novel and that conversation with a man who saw the future far more clearly than I that came to mind last week when T-Mobile CEO John Legere announced in a press call that starting on July 15, calls between and within the U.S., Canada and Mexico would be free.
Legere said that all of North America would now be one big calling area for T-Mobile. As I fumbled about trying to pay attention to the press call, I had to ask the inevitable question: “Were there any plans for T-Mobile to extend that free calling to Europe and elsewhere in the world?”
Legere and his team fielded the question, not realizing that it was sparked by a conversation also about communications decades earlier. No, I was told, for now voice calls outside of North America would be pretty cheap, but not free. But I was reminded that for T-Mobile, all data and text messaging traffic was already free, and that applied to nearly every country in the world.
Later, I contacted T-Mobile and pointed out where Clarke had predicted that calling would be free, and I asked whether T-Mobile was in fact acting as Clarke’s agent of change. I passed along this short passage from the book: “With the historic abolition of long-distance charges on 31 December 2000, every telephone call became a local one, and the human race greeted the new millennium by transforming itself into one huge, gossiping family.”
“Clarke’s vision for the future was inspiring and, more importantly, challenged conventional norms,” T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert responded in an email when I asked about Clarke’s prediction. “So, yes, he’s a kindred spirit.”
Mobile Carriers Start Fulfilling Clarke’s Vision of Free Global Calls
“In a lot of ways, the Un-Carrier movement has followed Clarke’s notion that big ideas pass through three phases: 1) it can’t be done 2) maybe it’s possible but it not worth doing and 3) I told you it would be a great idea!,” Sievert wrote.
“The truth is, all we’ve done is listen to customers and give them what they want. If that counts as transformative, we’re happy to take the credit because it means we’re succeeding in moving this industry forward,” he wrote.
Clarke, unfortunately, was a little off on the timing, just as he was optimistic about finding a Sentinel in the form of a monolith on the moon in 2001. Who would have guessed that having achieved its goal of sending astronauts to the moon, the United States would turn its back on manned deep space exploration within a few years? I don’t think anyone could have predicted such short-sightedness. But now, 2010 has passed and his second Odyssey novel was likewise too optimistic. Will 2061 be the same?
In one sense, it won’t. Regardless of whether we travel to Jupiter on a manned mission, we will at least have effectively fulfilled one of Clarke’s predictions, albeit a few years late. People these days are communicating mostly via data connections, which are already becoming free, starting with T-Mobile and to a lesser extent with the other wireless carriers in the U.S. Voice calling isn’t free globally yet, but I don’t think that’s out of the question either.
But voice calling is already free anywhere in the U.S. with any of the major carriers in exchange for your monthly service charges. Today, I can pick up my cell phone and call my daughter in the next town, my editor in California, my friends in Hawaii or a hotel on Guam, and it’s a local call. And it doesn’t matter whether the phone I’m calling is with my carrier, another carrier or even if it’s another cell phone. If I use T-Mobile, that ability extends to any phone in the U.S. or elsewhere in North America.
How much longer before the rest of the industry takes note and realizes that free calling everywhere is a competitive must? It’s already happening. My Verizon land line now gives me unlimited calling anywhere within the U.S. or Canada. I can call friends in any of those places as often as I wish and talk as long as I wish. Or more to the point, I can conduct my business the same way.
Is this ability transformative? It is to me, and it allows me to do my work more efficiently and with less overhead. And as you can see from the explosive growth of mobile phones, that transformation is already well under way. He might have gotten the date wrong, but as has been the case in so many ways, Clarke once again saw the future.