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The Democratization of Communications

Jeffrey R. Harrow
Principal Technologist, The Harrow Group

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(read his bio)

More than a decade ago I published an article declaring that the days of paying a per-minute fee for domestic long distance calls were numbered. Indeed, now, between cell phone plans and various wired "special pricing plans," few people pay by the minute.

A few years later I expanded this vision by decrying the oncoming death of pay-per-minute international calls. Most people called this an outrageous claim.

Over the past two or three years the traditional phone companies have budged a bit on their very high per-minute charges for some international calls. Generally, for a monthly fee, they would reduce the per-minute charge to a single, or to a select few countries, by some percent. A bit less expensive, depending on your international calling needs, but hardly a reduction that would change most peoples' calling behavior.

Today though, it's obvious that the Internet has already changed things far more. Perhaps most notable is that if both parties have a PC with a reasonably high-speed Internet connection, and if they both have a compatible (free) application installed (such as Skype, some Instant Messaging programs, and others), they can conduct PC-to-PC "phone" (even video) conversations at zero cost per-minute. Of course not everyone you might want to talk to has such a PC setup, and even if they do, many folks don't find using a PC as comfortable as using the familiar telephone.

The Changing Of The Guard.

But new choices are changing all the rules. For example, for some time now I've used Vonage VoIP (Voice over IP) phone service (it uses my Internet connection instead of a traditional wired phone line). Aside from the "technically interesting" factor, I find that it is so cost-effective that it can't be ignored. (Note: I have absolutely no connection with Vonage other than as a happy customer, and it may be that other alternative communications providers are moving in the same direction).

The basic Vonage service costs $15/month including 500 free minutes of long distance throughout the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. For $10 more per month the 500 minute limit evaporates, providing unlimited calling within those areas. Vonage service also comes with all the add-on features, and more, that I used to pay extra for on my traditional wired phone line.

Even international calls from my Vonage phone have been incredibly inexpensive compared to the old guard, costing 5 or 6-cents per minute to much of western Europe, Tel Aviv, Singapore, Tokyo, Prague, Copenhagen and more. Hong Kong costs an incredible 4 cents per minute. (A Skype service called "SkypeOut" offers similar, sometimes even less expensive rates to regular phones from a PC.) These slashed rates are already changing both business and personal communications. Yet as they say on TV, "But Wait -- There's MORE!"

Vonage recently upgraded its $25 unlimited plan to include unlimited calls to Italy, France, Spain, Ireland, and the UKat no additional cost!

Talk about the world becoming a smaller place.

We've Only Just Begun.

I remain convinced that this is only the beginning. I expect that within five years, or perhaps sooner, I won't have to pay extra to call a majority of countries. As time marches further on, I think it will become the general norm. I call this the democratization of communications.

I also suspect that the more traditional players, such as the 'wired' phone companies, and even cell phone providers (it's amazing to now group them into the term "traditional,") will have to play this game. The end-game will be unlimited global calling for an affordable monthly price.

This Is Not Your Mother's Telephone.

When I was a kid my mother literally had an hourglass (a 3-minute egg timer) next to the one phone in the house; those falling grains of sand defined the duration of our weekly long distance call to Grandma. That was almost the only long distance call that we ever made.

This practice, born out of the original very high price of long distance calling, was so ingrained in my mother that even recently she would only call me on Sunday afternoons, and she complained when I called her at other times or talked very long. Finally, I talked her into accepting a cell phone on my plan and, with its in-plan unlimited calling, she's finally relegated that egg timer to the kitchen.

My kids still say that they're going to dial the phone. Of course they've never actually used a "dial," but the phrase is ingrained in our societal vocabulary. Similarly, I suspect that placing a "long distance call" will be something we say long after there's little or no distinction between a call to next door or one to the next continent. That term "long distance" will have as little intrinsic meaning as "dialing" the phone does today. And judging by the changes that have occurred in just the past year or so, we won't have to wait very long at all.

Faster and Faster and Faster...

This is of course just one of the myriad changes that technology is enabling seemingly every day, while the rate at which these changes occur, and the significance of each of the changes, are accelerating! No wonder that we all find it hard to keep up.

And remember -- we've only just begun...

Footnote.

I've had the honor and privilege of bringing you my commentary on technological events and trends every month during the years that Future Brief has been published. For almost three decades I've been studying these issues and helping many companies to understand the changes, and the implications, that accelerating technologies are bringing to their businesses.

I obviously have an intense focus in these areas. Yet above and beyond my own contributions to Future Brief, a majority of the articles in every Future Brief issue have consistently garnered my interest and, often, sent me scurrying after more details. As Future Brief now goes into that gentle night, I would like to recognize those at Future Brief who have had such a keen eye on highlighting important technological events for its readers. I'd similarly like to thank Future Brief's parent, New Global Initiatives, for providing what has been an invaluable service to many people working with, legislating for, or directly benefiting from technology.

NGI's good work continues even as Future Brief comes to an end. Future Brief will be missed.

Don't Blink!

This essay is original and was specifically prepared for publication at Future Brief. A brief biography of Jeff Harrow can be found at our main Commentary page. Other essays written by Jeff Harrow can be found at his web site. Jeff receives e-mail at jeff@theharrowgroup.com. Other websites are welcome to link to this essay, with proper credit given to Future Brief and Mr. Harrow. This page will remain posted on the Internet indefinitely at this web address to provide a stable page for those linking to it.

To download a PDF version of this essay, click here. Please feel free to share the PDF with others who may be interested. To hear about future Commentary essays, take a few seconds to read about Daily Brief, one of the "briefest" Internet updates offered anywhere.

© 2006, Jeffrey Harrow, all rights reserved.

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