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The Ecphorizer
When Will Residential Phone Service Equal That of Business?
Tod Wicks
 

All right, now, raise your hands, all of you who work or otherwise do business in an office (or factory, or school, or hospital) where you pick up a phone and dial three or four digits to reach the guy across the plant. How do you dial your home? You have to dial 9 first, right? Good. You're still with me. Chances are you are the end user of a Private Branch Exchange (PBX) of

Services like these would better serve the residents of such a co-op.

one sort or another. If your workplace has more than, say, 40 telephone extensions and access to five or more incoming and outgoing lines to the local switching central office (CO trunks), then you are probably PBX users. If your company is this size or larger, then it is a good candidate to buy one.

Of course, some PBXs are of the old manual type. That is, several operators answer and connect callers with cords which are plugged into jacks. They might also have to press a button which rings the phone at the other end! However, more and more progressive companies are buying or leasing new solid-state (transistorized) switching machines from suppliers like the local phone company, ATT, ROLM, or Northern Telecom. These business switching machines are capable of some pretty fantastic stuff.

Not only can you dial here, there, and everywhere (this is known in the trade as "POTS" - Plain Old Telephone Service!), but also you can program your calls to forward to another extension. Another nice feature allows you to press two or three buttons and the switch will dial whatever number you desire that is coded for those buttons; for instance, it will dial "9" to get outside dial tone, then dial the 1" if needed, then dial the area code, and finally dial the last seven digits of the number you programmed. This is called "speed calling." Many systems have a list of several tens of numbers already programmed (by your Communications Manager) for numbers that a lot of people in that company dial. These are known as "System Speed Numbers."

Just think: You're in Marketing. You want to dial your development engineer, but her line is busy. Simply press another code and hang up. When the engineer is finished with her call, your phone will ring, and hers will begin to ring when you pick up your handset. Some vendors refer to this as "camping on" to the called busy extension.

Does your office call a certain city quite often? Or do people place a lot of calls to, say, the New York area? There are neat tricks that allow your company to route your call on a cheaper path than the good old public network. To get to one city, a "foreign exchange" line, that is dial tone from a central office in that remote city, is routed to your PBX. Your PBX recognizes the area code you dialed as belonging to that distant central office. So, instead of dialing it over the public network, it selects the foreign exchange line. Those calls to the east coast? Easy! Your company leases a lower-cost specialized common carrier (SCC) line from, say, SPRINT. Or, your call might be routed over a band-5 WATS line. This is simply the zone that is furthest from your location, and includes all inner zones located between the band-5 area and your home area.

Yes, folks, what won't they think of next? Well, you'd be surprised! For you computer and electronics freaks, certain suppliers are even offering digital telephones. No, I don't mean those with push-button dials, although touch-dialing is certainly integral to these digital telephone sets. The normal telephone set is what is known as an analog set. It transforms the frequencies of your voice into a range of varying power levels. It's sort of like the speedometer needle, varying from 0-60 MPH. But digital sets transform our voice frequencies into computer data: ones and zeros. This data stream is sent down a link to the switch (which is also a digital, rather than analog, machine), and is routed to whomever you dialed. The advantages of digital sets are that there is no distortion and static on calls within the switch, and that only two wires are needed to handle the voice data, as well as signals that tell the telephone to ring, or to blink its lights, or to give you dial tone.

So what else is new? How about your home system? "But my home doesn't have a system," you say. Right! Who needs a $20,000 (at least) switch sitting in a corner of the dining room. But then how can we use such things as described above in our homes? Simple ...but not so simple.

First, let's understand that our residential phone rates are not going to go down. Over the next five years, they will rise by 100%. And if you call friends who live over 25 miles from you, you'll be paying for crossing Local Access Transport Areas (LATAs) with access charges. If you call out of state, you'll really get socked with extra fees and charges.

Now, suppose there's a Mr. Smith, who lives in Palo Alto Towers, a residential cooperative (I hate the moniker "condo!") of some two hundred families. For the sake of argument, let's also assume that one tenth of these families, for one reason or another, have an extra phone line in their apartments. This means 220 phone lines terminating in PAT. Now, are these in use all the time? Ten percent of the time? How much do you use your phone during the week?

Why not share facilities, like the old-fashioned party-lines? Only now, we'll update the party with a PBX. We'll get one which is electronic with battery backup in case there's a power outage. The Co-op probably already has an owner's association. This association would set up a standing Telecommunications Committee to oversee the use of the PBX. The committee would also be responsible for collecting appropriate phone bills and doing traffic studies.

Now, for those 200 people who use 220 central office lines, we'll have most of the lines removed, leaving only 32 CO trunks (15%). This is probably high, but this machine can analyze the telephone traffic patterns of Mr. Smith and his fellow residents. If these patterns indicate lower usage, then some of those 32 trunks can be eliminated.

The Telecomm Committee could also study the traffic patterns to determine if it would be more economical to order up a WATS line or two, or perhaps a foreign exchange line to San Francisco, and maybe a SPRINT line. Services like these would better serve the residents of such a co-op.

Needless to say, residents could call to one another by using their own four digit extensions Incoming calls would be routed directly to these extensions without the aid of a console attendant through use of direct inward dial lines from the central office.

There can be an emergency line dedicated to the police or fire departments, so the homeowner could simply press the 911 button and be routed to the emergency desk at the police station.

So you can see that having a PBX in a residential unit like Palo Alto Towers can definitely be an advantage to the residents in the form of monthly phone bill savings and the luxury of features besides POTS. Why pay the local phone company for speed calling or call waiting (that little beep in your ear when you're on the phone and a third party tries to reach you) or call forwarding? There are such things as conference calls (which aren't limited to the residents of the building, either), speakerphone capability, intercom within your own apartment, and paging.

Now, how about some cream? Each phone can have the effect of two extensions on it. If more expensive models are ordered ($200), then more than two are available. If you need a computer terminal at home, these phones and the PBX also are equipped to do computer data switching and will permit terminals to be linked to an outside computer which allows many users to access it at the same time. Incidentally, as long as this co-op is in a buying mode, how about buying a multi-user computer and letting all the residents have the capability to use it? Wow!

This phone system could also be equipped with a voice messaging system (VMS). This is simply a grand monolithic answering device to which all the extensions are linked. If you are using your phone, or if you don't answer, incoming calls are forwarded to the central answering machine. Your greeting message answers the call and your party can leave a message for you. You retrieve your messages by dialing your own password. You can delete your message, save it, or even send it to someone else. The Telecomm Committee could even send a broadcast message to all users from, say, the president of the association. The message might announce a general shareholders meeting, or some such.

So, how about it? When will some enterprising co-op decide to invest the $20-50,000 for such a system? I daresay that it we'll hear about it within three years. It's an event whose time has come.


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About
Tod Wicks
The hand-held calculator was the best thing to come along for our numerically-challenged editor.  Then he discovered Reverse Polish Notation used by Hewlett-Packard calculators and he was lost forever.
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