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175 years of history of telecommunications

4 December 2012
black and white photo of IET president Dr Mike Short for his online blog

Alexander Graham Bell experimented with speech partly as deafness ran in his family, innovations eventually leading to the telephone. What other innovations may now affect voice, rendering networks speechless in this connected data world? Asks IET past president Dr Mike Short.

The IET ran an event in September marking the major landmarks that celebrate 175 years of UK telecommunications history. It is a history of great invention and service, such as Wheatstone and Cooke's technology behind the telegraph, just one year before Morse helped to commercialise the use of telegraphy for railway transport and remote communications.

It is remarkable to see how much wireless has affected both transport and communications in the last 175 years. The ability to communicate at a distance is not always considered in terms of environmental benefits alongside travel savings. However, we can even project more wireless subscriptions than people globally by the end of this year. Some have even forecast more than 50 billion connections by 2020 with the vast majority being wireless related!

What is all the more surprising is how from non-voice services in the beginning (such as the telegraph) that it is only in the last 20 years that we have seen a major proliferation in data traffic on public networks.

Real or non-real time telecomms?

The fixed line voice quality was significantly improved over the first 100 years of telecommunications, reducing network links and echoes over long distances, and improving overall network and voice quality. When public mobile networks first came into service there were many challenges, but the fixed line community questioned whether mobile could ever match fixed line voice quality or speeds. Some of this was because processing power in the 1980s was still limited, but more severely, mobile spectrum allocations left the sector to be a Cinderella whilst constrained behind more favourable military and broadcasting spectrum allocations. In the late 1990s mobile began to flourish as these issues were overcome, and competitive forces drove standards and innovation never previously seen before.

In the early years of mobile there were also coverage gaps nationally and internationally. These were partly overcome with voice mail, texting and roaming solutions. Voice mail allowed for a call to be connected to the recipient's mail box whether the recipient was out of coverage or switched off. This was complemented early on with call forwarding and other sophisticated enterprise solutions.

Texting did not start until 20 years ago, but once interoperability of networks was in place in the late 90s it began to take off at scale, but as yet a further non-real time service. It was often joked that people would text because they didn't wish to speak!

Roaming was also a way of supporting international travellers who had the comfort of being able to take their number everywhere and always stay in contact, even if voice mail or text were added to complete the service.

In effect asynchronous calling began to overtake real-time calls, and took the innovation down the long road from voice to data.

Coming to our senses

Other areas of more recent mobile innovation have started to use the other senses as part of the joy of communications. As displays got bigger and higher resolution, went to colour, and were supported by higher speed networks, then real visual communications started to take off. This supported more texting, instant messaging and email.

Initially the cameraphone was met with some surprise, but the convenience and quality of a single portable device soon became evident, even reaching some 15 megapixels in recent models. Alongside improved mobile data storage, personal mobile video filming has been seen and films are already sent to TV or Internet channels for replay and wider sharing.

The arrival of touch screens have led to easier access and exploration of applications and the Internet. However, what has been notable is how ranges of sense controls and accessories have also helped the disabled or the elderly - whether volume controls/font size adjust and colour/lighting contrasts or conversion techniques (speech to text, text to speech).

We have also seen the first pico projectors come on the market, both as accessories and integrated solutions. Innovations in 3D have helped augmented reality and games adoption. We may not yet have perfect video calling until 3G/4G networks become more pervasive, but this world of visual communications is here to stay.

So what of voice: voice activated dialling exists, as does voice search (e.g. Apple Siri), and voice over IP services.

What is notable though is how much voice is based on a data or packet bearer and is often treated as simply another data application. Mobile quality is likely to continue to improve, but it is likely to be alongside a growing mobile range of sensory or multimedia communications options.

Journey

So within this long journey of innovation, data has now overtaken voice traffic in most developed nations' public telecommunications networks. Perhaps now that data is in the lead we should reflect on this legacy, but it would be surprising if we were all rendered speechless!

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