A new world of telephony

 Telephones have come a long way since Alexander Graham Bell placed a call to the next room and said “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” 

Yet from its humble beginnings in 1876 telephone networks quickly developed to span the globe, at first through cables, then via cell towers and satellites. Yet it is only relatively recently that the telephone was freed from the copper cables that have bound it since Bell’s invention, but development has sped up dramatically over the last couple of years. 

The biggest changes came about through the integration of computer functionality in telephones, and vice versa. This has proven especially important in a much more global society, where online calling services such as Google Talk and Skype have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for computer users, with the ability to place calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world for free, if you ignore the cost of an Internet connection. 

There are some limits to the viability of many of the downloadable VOIP programmes. They only allow free calling to other users of the same programme, which means that you have to get all your friends and family members to load the same software onto their computers. Calls can also be placed only if the other user is logged in to the programme and their computer is switched on, which makes it somewhat less convenient than a telephone. 

Some services like Skype allow users to buy credits with which to call to regular phone numbers and create a Skype number so regular phone users can call them as well, but at least until recently this still meant that a user had to have computer handy to use the service. 

Another drawback comes in when looking at emergency calls. Unlike a regular telephone line where the operator knows the location from which the call is being placed, a computer’s IP address does not provide the same information, making it impossible for emergency services to be dispatched to the right address automatically. This is why most VOIP services come with a disclaimer that the service is not to be used to place emergency calls. 

Dedicated VOIP services, like LIME’s NetSpeak service, provides more telephone-like functionality while using the Internet for calling, leading to cheaper international calls than might otherwise be possible. However, such services provide a local number for the device, which means it is easy for regular telephone users to call the device, while it can also be used to place emergency calls and directory enquiries. 

The biggest change yet is only just emerging, for although the Internet has allowed video calling for a while already, the emergence of high speed mobile networks as well as smart phones with integrated cameras, has made mobile video calling a viable option. 

There are various services that allow the functionality, usually linked to applications (small computer programmes) installed on the mobile handsets. The calls themselves are placed using the data network rather than the traditional voice network, which means that it is important to monitor usage, the same as with regular phone calls, as video calling can use up a significant amount of data on longer calls. 

The quality of the service is very dependent on the speed of the network, so it has been impractical to attempt video calling from a mobile phone in Cayman. However, with LIME rolling out a 4G mobile network in September, users with 3G or 4G phones will be able to place video calls to other users who share similar high speed services. If only one user is on a high speed data network, it will be impossible to make a successful video call, as both parties need sufficient data speed. 

The same applications can be used to place regular voice calls over the data network in cases where an international call may prove more costly than the data needed to place the voice call. 

Even though it may seem that the humble home telephone has been superseded by other more modern alternatives, it is still a very useful tool, especially when it comes to providing redundancy during outages in other services, whether caused by technical glitches or natural disasters. As a standard home phone can operate without the need for electricity to be available at the home, it can work in circumstances where a VOIP service is likely to be unavailable. Depending on how natural disasters impact an area, land line phones may also be up and running at times when mobile networks are unavailable. 

Users with 3G or 4G phones will be able to place video calls to other users who share similar high speed services. 

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now