Telecommunications · 11:48am
Communication has exploded in the last few decades. Yeah, it may seem like we’re all introverts with our noses in our phones, but we actually communicate with each other more than ever before. It’s due to the magic of technology! There are a huge array of options we can use to pass information.
I think it's crazy how we can communicate these days. Say I call my parents on Saturday morning in Japan, so due to the time difference perhaps they're driving on the way to dinner Friday night in the United States. The call goes from my laptop's Skype out over the internet through an undersea cable to the US, then runs along more wires before it finds the appropriate cell phone tower, beams to one of my parents' phones and then jumps through Bluetooth from the phone to the hands free car system. Mind blown.
The internet has supplanted many legacy telecommunication systems, but they linger on. It’s hard to kill old hardware until the last person stops using it, and in the meantime everything has to be backwards-compatible.
Okay, telegraph lines have probably gone by the wayside. However, you can still see them strung alongside abandoned rail lines in some parts of the world.
The term “Telegraphy” is Greek. It means “to write at a distance.” Funny, because letters were some of the first long-distance communication, though probably the earliest way of sending messages over a distance was with smoke signals.
Either way, telecommunicating is about passing data. Voice transfer is a big subset of that, so we’ll discuss it separately later in the blog.
In the late 1700’s, France implemented an optical telegraph, capable of sending signals of light over distances. The device most commonly known as a telegraph, the electrical telegraph, was invented in the early 1800’s and became the standard for nearly a hundred years.
Interestingly, many early electric telegraph designs tried to use a separate wire for each letter. Ultimately, it was Morse Code transmitted over much simpler wires that became commonplace.
By 1861, telegraph lines spanned the United States and territories from coast to coast, effectively killing the need for Pony Express high-speed mail.
There was still lots of room for improvement, reducing the need for Morse-trained operators and increasing speed. The first printing telegraph was invented in 1855. Effectively, whatever was typed onto a keyboard on one end would come out the other. It’s a little bit of a stretch, but you could call this an early fax machine.
Communication made the jump to wireless in the late 1800’s with the invention of radio.
You’d think voice would have replaced text. But it’s hard to get a copy of someone talking on a piece of paper.
The early printing telegraph evolved into the teletype (Telex) and was still common up until the 1980’s. A variant was the message switching machine, which would send the whole message in one piece, basically an early form of e-mail.
Facsimile (fax) machines began to replace teletype because they required less special infrastructure, were faster, and could transmit higher quality content.
As someone who used to operate a fax machine on a regular basis, I can tell you that they still aren’t all that fast. Fax machines went by the wayside when the internet became popular.
Early internet used Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) lines. Dial up has since gone the way of the dodo, and aren’t we glad? These days, dedicated internet lines with higher bandwidth for better data transfer are the standard.
Short Message Service (SMS) was invented in the early 1990’s, but not really used by many people until the later 2000’s. It was designed to be short format, able to fill unused gaps in network traffic with minimum data usage. In other words, perfect for text messaging on phones or tweets.
Now that network bandwidth is only getting better, there’s probably no need to limit texting or tweeting to the SMS limit of 160 characters. Expanding them, however, would require restructuring network data formats to create more room for them.
The internet is not unique in its ability to support many types of communication over the same wires, but the fact that computers usually only have to change software instead of hardware to support that variety of comms makes both communication and diversity easier than ever before.
With electrical signals being sent over wires to produce letters, it was only a matter of time until someone figured out how to get voice to carry over lines. The telephone was invented in 1876.
Being able to route a message or call to one specific receiver made for less confusion and more privacy. Before, on a “party line”, everyone connected could hear what one person transmitted. In the early days, message routing was done with switchboards. You’ve probably seen the old movies where the operator sits in front of a literal board with lots of connections and routes wires from one phone line to the other. A way to automate this, by dialing the number you wanted to call, was invented in the early 1900’s and gradually phased in.
Before infrastructure upgrades began for internet, POTS was the backbone of modern communication for going on a century. Even when new equipment appeared at either end of the line, the wire was basically unchanged. It crossed oceans and circled the world.
Submarine cable map. Click the image to see a bigger version.
In the early 2000’s, Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) was developed. It’s become popular because you only need to have internet cables instead of separately running wires for phone and data. Skype is an example of a VOIP program to run on a computer, but standalone handsets can also be found.
The rise of mobile devices and data has added another wrinkle. Cellular networks are called such due to their division of coverage area into cells. They use various frequencies in each cell to avoid interference from one tower to another, as shown below:
I remember reading that undersea cables carry something like 80% of all communications across the ocean. Most of the other 20% is on satellites. There isn’t enough bandwidth available on satellites to take up the slack.
The newer technology of fiber optic cables can help. Fiber transmits pulses of light instead of electrical signals. It has a much higher bandwidth and much less loss than wire. But that still leaves the problem of vulnerability. Considering the majority of data is passed on cables, this is a big deal if bad guys want to cut them. For example, if WWIII kicks off and the US has to communicate with allies across the ocean.
Hey, that's a great transition into a sidebar about military telecommunications.
The Defense Switched Network (DSN) has, since the early 1980’s, been the primary network of the US government. The objective was to provide a phone service that could call another US government phone anywhere in the world without having to figure out international dialing. Moreover, DSN also provides data for unclassified and secret computer networks, while top secret networks are handled separately.
A common telephone on DSN is called Secure Terminal Equipment (STE). It looks like this:
Notice the slot on the front. That’s where the cryptography memory card slides in so the phone can go secure.
While classified networks are important, and critical details are probably best written down for clarity's sake, voice is still the fastest way to communicate when time is critical. “Incoming missile, take cover!” gets the point across a lot faster than having to open up an email. Although as I’ve said before, the military also uses a lot of chat.
When it comes to talking with other countries, special networks have to be set up. The Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS) consists of several diffeent networks that are specialized to talk to certain countries or groups of countries, for example ISAF in Afghanistan, or other allies around the world.
Perhaps one of the most famous country-to-country secure communications systems is the infamous “red phone” between Washington and Moscow. In reality, it was never actually a phone. The system began shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis as a teleprinter. It was upgraded to fax in the 1980’s and email in 2007. The system began using satellites in the 1970’s with the old cable as a backup. It is tested once per hour.
So what does the future of telecommunications look like? If I had to guess, I’d say the current trend of “less hardware, more software” will continue. So many devices are multifunction now that less specialized equipment is needed.
Mobile devices will become even more pervasive and integrated into daily life. Deadspots in coverage will become a thing of the past. Even today, in third world countries and war zones, cell phones get excellent coverage. I read an article about a soldier who inadvertently butt-dialed his parents in the middle of a shootout in Afghanistan.
Mobility has caused a shift from a network of places to a network of people. You don’t call someone’s house anymore, you call their phone - them. Your number as your individual identity has become so ingrained that the US government made it a law that you were able to take your number with you when switching carriers.
Electronic payment, virtual and augmented reality, apps, and other programs on phones have turned them from voice devices into miniature computers - and as I said, these days all you need to expand capability is software.
For more interesting predictions, let’s talk about Equestria. What’s up with their communications? Steam trains might imply telegraphs. Telephones have been seen once or twice in the show, but never used. Dragon mail is very fast, but rather limited in bandwidth. We saw journal-based instant communication in Equestria Girls. If everypony had their own dragon or magic book, mailponies wouldn’t be needed. Clearly this is not the case.
With magic already available, Equestria probably doesn’t want to invest in the kind of infrastructure that would be needed to provide phone, internet, and cell service to everyone. Customers probably wouldn’t want to pay for it, either. Equestria also seems pretty small, where a day trip can get you anywhere. Certainly not the thousands of miles we have to deal with on planet Earth.
Yeah, I know we’re overanalyzing here. Lauren Faust mandated that “technology is introduced only where the plot absolutely requires it.” In that respect, MLP is like 1990’s sitcoms: every plot could be easily solved if they had cell phones.
Thanks to Dafaddah for expert knowlege.
Also, my wife came up with the teletubbies joke.