Why Are We Still Paying for Long-Distance Calls?

One of the most magnificent things about the Internet is that you can communicate with people from all walks of life who live a vast distance away from you. Someone in New Zealand can speak to someone else in Russia without having to pay any extra cost. The same cannot be said about traditional phone calls that charge you by the minute depending on the destination. Why is it that the Internet, a service that started out by piggy-backing on telephone infrastructure, doesn’t experience the same pricing problems as telephone communication?

longdistance-rj11

In the digital world, where people use the Internet as their main source of communication, public switched telephone networks (PTSNs) have long been forgotten in favor of the speed and versatility of fiber-optic lines. However, a long time ago, the Internet ran on the same 4-pin RJ11 cables that people used to connect their land lines. The question on all of our minds is “Why did the Internet allow us back then to go to sites in locations vastly remote to ours at no extra cost, yet we were stuck having to pay up to 25 cents per minute to call family members abroad?”

The answer is very complex, but a lot of it had to do with the way in which both systems worked in that era. When the world was using ADSL, they were using a previously-untapped part of the frequency spectrum available in the RJ11 cables that connected phone networks. Since phones were using a lower frequency range there was no interference. This was also a major selling point of DSL services (i.e. you didn’t have to disconnect your phone line in order to use the internet). The importance of this is that telephone network operators needed to lower demand for their services in order to maintain a stable international network which led to increased costs for consumers.

Today, international calls aren’t that difficult to make, and prices have since gone down considerably. In some cases, you could even call neighboring countries at no extra cost (e.g. the U.S. & Canada, or some countries in Central Europe). But even after all the advancements we’ve made in telephone infrastructure, why are we still paying for long distance calls?

longdistance-telepresence

It is impossible to isolate the reason why telephone networks are behind the Internet in providing a truly open form of communication. The issue is actually very nuanced, but I can say with confidence that there are a few main issues they face:

  1. The Internet is already providing long-distance services through voice-over-IP (VoIP) providers such as Skype, Vonage, RingCentral, and Phone Power, which give you unlimited worldwide calling for a fixed fee.
  2. Video communication technology is rapidly overtaking telephone networks.
  3. The way each country’s phone services works can greatly affect the way in which they collaborate with the network in your home country, making communication come at a steep price.

That last reason is perhaps the biggest one. Some countries are still using older infrastructure, or their operators simply won’t collaborate with your network unless they pay a hefty fee. That fee would be passed onto you in the form of a pay-per-minute scheme.

Despite the heavy improvements we’ve made in communication, it seems as if traditional phone lines are here to stay. But as time continues to pass, there seems to be a tendency to try to mix the Internet with telephonic communication. Although services like Google’s Project Fi are making some headway, we still have a long way to go until you can make phone calls without any extra charge to any country in the world. If there’s one thing that could be the major catalyst in communication, it’s certainly the Internet.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments!

4 comments

  1. I dumped the land line. I dumped cable TV I am saving money monthly
    I had my home phone number ported to a cell phone company that has cheap rates and 250 min a month

    My cell phone number is unlimited minutes and texting — I can carry my home phone number and cell phone number and be anywhere—–

    I have Roku and Google chrome that buffers the router and have to reboot the router and uses a smart phone, iPad or laptop to stream—Roku connects to router and you can download a remote to your cell phone, smart pad or laptop. And has more use without buffering your router

    What about the time when there were no answer machines—no cell phones—only pay phone and home phones—one line and a rotary dialer on the phone

    people seemed to get by

    human psychology and human technology — human psychology never changes—-only adapts….

  2. The entire article, as well as the question posed in its title, required only three words:
    Because. They. Can.

  3. The article overlooks the technical reason; phone lines are circuit switched technologies, which means a dedicated circuit is made when you make a phone call to someone. This circuit remains consistent until the parties hang up so there is a cost to the phone network, hence the cost to the consumer. Of course, the upshot is quality; you don’t get dropped packets.

    VoIP or other services use packet switched connections so your phone conversation is chopped up into packets and sent over various networks. The upside is cost; by NOT using a dedicated circuit for the duration of the call, it’s much cheaper. The drawback is that you get occasional interference as packets can often go down connections that get dropped.

    So we’ve sacrificed quality for cost, much like MP3s vs CDs. The difference is that connections these days are more reliable than they were 10-15 years ago so VoIP is a much more viable option.

  4. I don’t think this is true. You haven’t sacrificed quality… have you ever had a FaceTime call before? The call quality is amazing compared to a POTS (actually, compared to any other VoIP service I’ve ever used, too… but I digress). Phone circuits have a limited bandwidth, which is also the reason you could get a limited Internet speed through them.

    Sure, it’s possible to get dropped packets, but as you’ve said, the tech has gotten more reliable… and Internet bandwidth has also increased dramatically. With VoIP you can get both quality and low cost.

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