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Are we telecommunicating more and enjoying it less?

It was 1974. We were deplaning in Bucharest, Romania. The red-carpeted path we followed to our official welcome was lined with armed soldiers. A familiar Sousa march was blaring over the loud speaker. We had already talked to officials in Ljubljana, Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, and Prague. An associate and I were traveling through Eastern Europe exploring business possibilities on our way to Moscow to report on a Russian machine tool show, Stanki I. It was the U.S. machine tool industry's first venture in displaying its wares there. Needless to say, it was an eerie experience.

In many of the offices we visited the desks held two, three, or more phones--one for each line. All black. Their technology and system of telecommunicating was primitive at best. The office in Bucharest had five phones. I remember wondering at the time if they all worked, still shuddering at the frustration of trying to call home the day before from Budapest.

That memory came to me when I first read about the merger of AT&T and BellSouth Corp., again proving the adage, what comes around goes around. The move would reunite four of the seven so-called Baby Bell telephone companies created when the government ordered the dissolution of AT&T (aka Ma Bell) in 1984. Judge Green, after a lengthy court trial, ruled that the giant AT&T was stifling competition. Maybe so, but unlike the experience many of us suffered through for years while trying to communicate when we traveled through Europe, the system worked.

The breakup did spur the evolution of the cell phone system. There is no doubt we are talking more--talking while we are driving, flying, walking, jogging. The cell phone has become a traffic hazard, people talking rather than concentrating on their driving and, in turn, causing accidents. It has gotten so bad some states have outlawed phoning while driving.

The evolution of the cell phone, in spurring competition, has gone far beyond the traditional telephone business. Cell phones now compete with cameras, walkie-talkies, Xboxes and iPods, and fax machines and e-mailing computers. The final result will be a conglomeration of communication companies that will make the original AT&T seem like corner mom and pop store. Is the price you pay to make a call going to go down? Don't bet on it! Company executives avoided the questions during congressional hearings about prices going up by insisting that technological advancements are the driving force behind the mergers.

Now the Baby Bells are not only remarrying, they are adopting their cellphone orphans. They are buying up wireless systems. AT&T and SBC already own Cingular; and marriages are either pending or already consummated between MCI and Verizon, Sprint and Nextel, with rumors flying about T-Mobile, Alltel, and the others.

Not only do we have the hardwire and wireless telecommunication companies merging, they are moving into offering broadband connections for your computer and cable connections for the TV complete with stay-at-home movie viewing at your convenience. With TV screens getting bigger, how long will a night at the movies be a date option? What the technology will wrought next is anybody's guess.

I'm sure that many of us have more telecommunication equipment at our fingertips than we can understand, use, or even afford. Some folks change phones like some women change shoes. The old Western Electric Ma Bell black phones lasted half a lifetime. We have the ability to talk more and too many of us are doing just that. But are the words spewing from our lips as we speed down the highway or walk through the shopping mall worth the cost? I can't put a number on it, but I'm sure the accidents caused by telephone-talking drivers are a factor in the ever-increasing auto insurance rates.

Where I used to get one telephone bill from Ohio Bell every month, now the mailman brings several bills--a bill for my old-fashioned wire phone for local calls, another, occasionally, for long distance to Europe, and two cell phone bills for my wife and myself--cell phones we feel we need for emergencies when we are on the road.

There is no doubt we are talking much more, but I also have to believe we are saying a lot less. Just how much telecommunication equipment does the average human being need? I guess what we learned from this social experiment is that in some things in business, bigger is better!
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Title Annotation:straight talk
Author:Modic, Stan
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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