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Issac Qureshi on the Rise and Fall of the Landline: 143 Years of Telephones

Since the origins of the telephone in the nineteenth century, there have been many seismic changes in the technological landscape. The history of the telephone is a fascinating view into how technology has changed people’s lives. Before the telephone, verbal information could not easily be transmitted across great distances. The telegraph somewhat predated the telephone, but the average consumer did not have a telegraph in their home, nor could many translate the Morse code being transmitted.

From its humble beginnings with Alexander Graham Bell to its latest incarnation as the advanced smartphone, Issac Qureshi explains the history of the telephone and how it made a fundamental change to technology. Qureshi traces the rise and fall of the landline and shows how the current marketplace has transformed the industry.

Predecessors to the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell was not the only inventor of the telephone, though his 1876 patent went on to create the general standard for telephones around the world. Thomas Edison, Antonio Meucci, Johann Phillip Reis, and Elisha Gray constructed competing devices which operated on different principles. Since Bell’s invention was adopted by most of the world, his is the only name which most people associate with the invention of the telephone.

The First Telephone Networks

When telephones were first invented, they were a means of simple point-to-point communication. For example, a home and business could be connected through the telephone, making what was essentially an intercom system. As the technology developed, small groups of telephones were connected in a system known as a telephone exchange. This is the predecessor to today’s area codes.

Telephone exchanges were managed by machine or by small local switchboards. An operator would need to connect a user with another telephone on the network. This system persisted until the 1940s in the United States. If a long-distance call was needed, an operator would connect the exchange participant directly to the long-distance line.

Rise of the Landline

By the year 1904, the United States had the highest density of telephones compared to the total population. In that year, the rotary dial telephone was introduced. This allowed customers to make telephone calls to their local exchange without the use of a human operator. As the 20th century went on, the majority of American households had telephone landlines.

Long-Distance Calling and the North American Numbering Plan

In 1962, Bell completed its rollout of the ten-digit numbering system for telephones. This eliminated the need for telephone operators in the majority of cases. Many people were disgruntled when their preferred form of calling became obsolete. Discontent with the progress of telephone technology remains an ongoing issue to this day.

Uses of the Landline Telephone

For decades, the landline telephone was the pinnacle of telephone technology. As the years progressed, innovations like touch-tone dialing were introduced that made the phone easier to use. Landlines were used for home, business, administrative, and government purposes. In the years prior to the Internet, people used telephones to order products and communicate with business associates.

Most young phone consumers do not remember the years when long-distance calling was prohibitively expensive. The rise of the cell phone encouraged long-distance calling as a matter of course.

Rise of the Cell Phone

The first cell phone call was made in April, 1973. The phone weighed 2 and a half pounds and had 35 minutes’ talk time with a 10-hour recharge. During the 1970s and 1980s, Motorola worked to reduce the size of the cell phone and make it more accessible to the consumer. However, cell phones were prohibitively expensive for the average consumer until the mid-1990s.

Early cell phones were limited by small networks and immature technology. Before the mid-1990s, it was difficult for people with cell phones to travel outside their local network. Network technology continued to progress at a rapid rate along with the adoption of the cell phone.

As cell phones became more popular, many households began to drop their landline coverage. This caused alarm among industry executives and pushed the adoption of better cell phone technology. Cable companies began to offer landlines in competition with traditional wired telephone services. Internet providers began to offer VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol landlines.

Fall of the Landline

By 2018, the share of households that have no landline has risen to more than half. Numbers of customers with both landlines and cell phones and landlines alone has dropped. Notably, the percentage of customers with only a landline has dropped to about 5 percent.

Increased network quality, as well as exciting technological advances in the cell phone, have driven its popularity. As new technologies come into view, the domination of the cell phone will only become more complete. Issac Qureshi has studied the history of the telephone and the current state of the market today and believes we are due for another seismic change at the scale of the invention of smart phones.

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