Why telephones do not work in the 21st century
Thu, 14 Jul '11 17:12

It's 10pm; I'm relaxing on top of my bed, talking to my girlfriend on my iPhone before bed. She lives in Seattle, and I in San Francisco. Yeah, we're doing the long distance thing, but that's OK because we live in a technological wonderland with commercial jet aircraft and video phones. In this amazing future, it feels more like she's across town rather than 678 miles away (I know this exactly due the GPS units embedded in our phones).

"Hey, I m-- you", she says.
"Huh? Say again?" I strain to understand.
"I said I miss you", she repeats.
"Oh, yeah, I mi--", I begin as I'm interrupted by the iPhone's all-too-familiar double beep indicating a dropped call.

I moved to San Francisco about 3 years ago and promptly bought an iPhone 3G. Last year I upgraded to an iPhone 4. At work, we use Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) handsets through our 100 Megabit connection.

Before moving to San Francisco, I was not familiar with the term "dropped call" - the only time it had ever happened to me previously was while speaking on a cell phone during a drive through poor service areas or tunnels. I now have so many problems with both my personal and work telephones that I feel it's time to ask why.

One might argue that many of the problems associated with my personal phone are specific to my circumstances:

  1. I do not have a landline, so my cell phone is my only telephone.
  2. I have an iPhone, which was locked to a single network (AT&T) at the time I purchased it.
  3. I live in a major US city (San Francisco) with an unusually high density of iPhone users (compared to the majority of the US).

So I now understand that overloaded networks can create more dropped calls and lead to call quality issues. When I travel to a small or medium sized town, I instantly notice improvements. I tend to get more bars, no dropped calls, and - and this is the weird part - better audio quality.

In the analog days of land lines (and I believe even the early cell phones), your voice was converted to an audio signal by vibrating a small drum which influenced a magnet and generated a current (its the opposite of the way a speaker works). But today, voice calls are just another form of data - the audio is collected in a similar manner, but your phone turns it into a digital audio format, compresses it, and transmits it, just like Skype does when you talk on your computer. This leads to noticeable artifacts when the data is corrupted due to connectivity problems; typically sounds become garbled or voices sound "robotic".

But my guess is that in high-density places like San Francisco, someone had to make a choice between quality and quantity and chose quantity. What do I mean by that? It takes years to get cell phone towers approved and built, so there is essentially a finite amount of bandwidth. In order to handle the ever increasing load on AT&T's network, they had to find a way to minimize data involved in a phone call. This can be accomplished by increasing the compression of the voice data, which reduces the audio quality.

Now, telephones are not professional recording studios; we're not making the next top 40 hit here, but you do need to be able to understand the other person. And this leads us to a problem much bigger than the occasional dropped call: when I use my iPhone in San Francisco, I cannot understand the other person. I can usually hear them - the audio is not robotic or mechanical sounding, the volume is sufficient, and the audio stream is continuous (i.e. nothing drops out). However, the content is often unintelligible, requiring me to concentrate intensely to understand the other person; half the time, I cannot. It's as if the other person is speaking through a gag.

The above analysis of modern telephony is mostly a guess, but I think somewhere, someone made a conscious decision to sacrifice call quality to allow for extra users to use a finite resource. In other words, someone hit the "suck button" intentionally to prevent all calls from being dropped all the time.

I can understand the issues specific to the iPhone. But hey, as a consumer, I have choices, right? I can use a different cell provider or even a different technology altogether such as Skype or Google Voice's "call any phone in North America completely free" service, which is really cool, by the way. I have the Skype app on my phone, so I can actually use Skype in exactly the same way I currently use my cell phone. Surprisingly, I can use Skype on my iPhone 4 using only the 3G data network, and the call quality is a huge improvement over AT&T's voice network.

Wait, let's take a step back.

  • Call quality over AT&T's voice network using an Apple iPhone: Unacceptable. Unusable.
    • Possible Explanation: Overloaded network.
  • Call quality over AT&T's data network using a third party app: Crystal clear.
    • Explanation: Same network, same microphone, same headphones - I have none.

So what's going on AT&T?? I would like to explain the problem by exposing on the history of telephony and data bandwidth, etc, etc, but clearly that's not it at all. As we say in the technology sector: WTF AT&T?

But wait, it gets worse.

At work, we use a VoIP service for our telephones. It has the following issues

  1. Sometimes, we cannot receive calls at all.
  2. Sometimes, all our handsets reboot simultaneously, sometimes during a conference call with clients.
  3. Often, during group conference calls, we receive severe feedback (I get the same on my iPhone). It's our own voices played back to us in mechanical robotic tone delayed by 1.5 seconds. It's hard to talk over yourself.

In the mid-90s I had my first speaker phone. It worked fine. Why, now, well into the 21st century, can a major business not make basic phone calls? I don't know. But it's unacceptable.

You might say this is a typical "first world problem". Oh no - Mr. San Francisco has some trouble using his state-of-the-art smart phone. Comedian Louis C.K. recently described it as the future in your pocket everyone's complaining about. Well that sounds valid, and not knowing any better I would be inclined to agree, except for two important points:

  1. I was alive 30 years ago when phones worked
  2. I've lived 1.5 years in a 3rd world country.

So to address #1, yeah this is basically bullshit. There's simply no excuse. 30 years ago America was the leader of telephonic technology. We had it down cold; there were no dropped calls; the term didn't exist. You could understand each other. It just worked.

Today I don't know what you're talking about because I can't understand you. And if I can't understand you, then I don't know that you aren't trying to kill me.

For #2, the third world often leap-frogs technology, e.g. skip over landlines and go straight to cell phones. That's interesting; it also works. I spent years in the Sumatran rainforest conducting a forestry research project; even in the remote jungle, my parents would still call me on my cell phone. But my parents can't call me on my cell phone in San Francisco; instead, I get a notification 30 minutes later that I missed their call and maybe have a voicemail that I can't check right now.

It's simply unacceptable.