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Technological Advances: Never say never

Technological Advances: Never say never

Al Germond

“Never say never” has forever been a phrase I’ve taken to heart when it comes to considering anything electronic. Who would have thought as recently as a decade ago that you’d be watching television on huge screens, automatically recording programs for retrieval at a later date (sans commercials or tapes) or relying on the Internet for communication—all of which are considered rather ordinary and banal today.

One of my favorite “never say never” activities is observing the progression of developments over they years with what the telecommunications industry has been able to do with the simple “twisted pair.” As old as Alexander Graham Bell and his first primitive telephones, the twisted pair is made up of the two copper wires that connect this humble instrument with the central office a few miles away.

From the first wall phones to the multi-function devices of today, the relatively simple mission of these two wires and what’s attached to them has been to provide audio communication with others—or so you thought.

Actually, telecommunications engineers have been working for decades on ways to improve the utility of their networks, with particular emphasis on “the last mile”—the wire leading into your home.

In 1936 it was considered a huge step to connect New York and Philadelphia with a special cable so that television pictures could be exchanged between those two cities. Twenty years later, linking Europe and North America with the first trans-oceanic telephone cable was a very big deal. Your telephone and its network of wires, though, were still very basic because computers and the Internet were still part of some futuristic world of sorcery and intrigue.

In spite of fiber optic and coaxial cables already serving many areas, the basic link to your home and office is still based on copper using a twisted pair of wires, the capacity of which miraculously improves almost daily. A battle royal has formed between the cable television providers and the traditional copper wire-line telephone companies. They move in and out of each other’s neighborhoods with cable companies offering voice communication while telephone companies sign up subscribers for their version of television via the twisted pair.

There’s nothing technically noteworthy about a cable television company adding Internet and telephone service to its menu of offerings because there’s plenty of capacity on their coaxial lines. What are truly remarkable are the huge capacity leaps on the part of the copper wire-line telephone companies. While some telephone subscribers remain trapped with sluggish 56,000-bit service, others more fortunately placed can now sign up for uninterrupted speeds of up to 6 million bits per second.

It’s still the same old pair of copper wires. Unlike the television cable you share with your neighbors, which you may also use with computers and which are subject to variations in speed, the telephone company’s twisted pair represents an exclusive connection between your home and their office. That leaves them with plenty of latitude to use the latest in modem wizardry to cram incredible amounts of data up and down their lines of copper.

CenturyTel—née Verizon, General Telephone and, before that, the Missouri Telephone Company—has hardly been dozing when it comes to innovation via its twisted pairs. While it’s still in the testing stage, the dozen or so dish antennae on the roof of one of its buildings at 7th and Cherry streets in downtown Columbia bespeaks a serious commitment by this traditional wire-line telephone company to supply television programming over a virtually universal network of copper wires.

There will be subsequent discussions here about CenturyTel’s audacious entrée to furnish television programming via twisted pairs. There are probably some legal questions that still need to be resolved relative to the scope of activities permitted under CenturyTel’s charter as a wire-line telephone company—matters hardly envisioned the last time its franchise with the City of Columbia was renegotiated.

“Never say never,” though. Today’s technical marvel may be miraculous speeds over the telephone company’s network of copper wires. The Holy Grail, though, is freedom from wires. All types of wireless service at supersonic speeds through upgraded cellular telephone networks is already a fact in some areas, and it won’t be long before it comes here. Never say never!

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