Modern Phone : Dial F for the Future--It’s Here

Times Staff Writer

When telecommunications executive Lee Cox begins the daily commute to his office in San Francisco, he presses a button on his car phone to hear a summary of traffic conditions. By punching another button on the phone, he can retrieve a stream of voice-mail messages recorded overnight by colleagues stationed around the world.

With other buttons, Cox can tap into stock market reports, pick up scores of ball games or get a rundown on the weather outlook for the weekend.

Cox, president of PacTel Corp., clearly has far more at his fingertips than all but a handful of telephone customers. But that won’t be true for long. The once basic-black telephone is about to become supercharged with new computerized features and capabilities that are expected to come into widespread use in the 1990s.


Wider Possibilities

And Cox is barely scratching the surface of what can be done with the telephone today--not to mention what will commonly be done tomorrow. Although rarely used as such, the dozen push-buttons on the common phone can actually function as keys on a computer terminal. By pressing a button or combination of buttons, a caller can choose among a broadening array of information services, enter a pledge in a fund drive, reply to a recorded opinion poll, or select and charge merchandise from catalogues.

As phone companies finish converting their switches to carry information in digital form, the old twin strands of twisted copper wires linking homes, offices and factories will be transformed into high-speed conduits that carry voice, computer data and video transmissions--all at the same time and over a single phone line.

And the key to unlocking that wealth of information is the common and ubiquitous telephone.

Expanding Market

The types of services Cox receives through his car phone already are widely available to people who subscribe to databases and have computers linked to phone lines with communications devices called modems. But the phone system of the 1990s promises to dramatically open the market for these and other services by making them easier and cheaper to use. No longer will the user have to buy or learn how to use comparatively costly computer equipment; anyone with a push-button phone will be able to tap in.

Once the power of the computer becomes readily accessible through a phone’s key-pad, it produces a sort of “superphone” that may change life styles and work patterns before the start of the 21st Century, said Richard Adler, a futurist specializing in such “teleservices” for the Institute of the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.

“You will more and more have the option to do at home what you had to do at the office before,” Adler said. “People will choose to do at home what is convenient, and when they leave home it will be a matter of choice--for socializing, business, recreation or diversion.”

Larry L. (Butch) Brown of Natchez, Miss., is part of a tiny minority of telephone customers getting a taste of the future today, and he is clearly enthusiastic about his phone’s new powers. “It’s an incredible instrument,” Brown said. “I couldn’t live without it.”

The local phone service available to Natchez’s 22,000 residents through South Central Bell offers features few consumers are familiar with. For one thing, the Brown household’s busy phone now can vary its ring to let each of the four family members know for whom the bell sounds.

“If there are three short, quick rings we know it’s for our son,” Brown explained. “If there are two short, quick rings it’s for our daughter. If it’s the regular ring we know it’s for us.”

The Browns’ phone also can intercept unwanted calls, answering these with a message explaining that the call will not be accepted. If the Browns can’t get to the phone before it stops ringing, no problem: Push a button and the phone will call back whatever number was last on the line. And if the family becomes bothered by crank or obscene calls, it can signal South Central Bell’s computer to record the time of day and phone numbers of the parties on the line.

And that’s not all.

Technological Wizardry

“If I only want to get one call, I can program that into the phone, which will reject all other calls but put that one through, or forward it to wherever I’m headed,” Brown said. “And if I dial a line that’s busy, I can program the phone so it keeps calling every 10 seconds or so until it gets through. Then it calls me !”

Each of these features adds $4 to $5 a month to the family’s phone bill, but Brown said he considers the enhancements worth the extra cost.

In communities here and there across the nation that are served by a similar computerized switching system, such services are now on the market. Over the next three to five years, these features will become widely available as switches everywhere are upgraded. Pacific Bell, for example, plans to begin offering them next year, first in the San Francisco Bay Area. And GTE California is conducting tests in Lancaster, Carpenteria and Santa Barbara.

By the early 1990s, the technology should spread worldwide and be far beyond the testing phase. Plans are in the works for a seamless, global network capable of carrying conversations, computer data and video signals simultaneously over the phone lines already running into homes and businesses. Consequently, callers will not get a busy signal, as now, when the phone line is carrying computer data.

Just last month American Telephone & Telegraph, British Telecom and France Telecom inaugurated a new transatlantic, fiber-optic cable that extends that capability across the ocean; another consortium expects to offer transpacific service next spring.

The key to supercharging the telephone lies in completing a network “intelligent” enough to understand computer and video “talk” without requiring customers to hook on special devices such as the modems now needed to send data over telephone lines, said Richard Brennan, a senior consultant for AT&T; Technologies in San Ramon, Calif. Brennan calls this intelligent network “the major revolution in the telephone since Alexander Graham Bell invented it.”

The beauty of this transformation is that it requires changing the big central switching devices but nothing between there and the customer, Brennan said. And once these potent switches are interconnected, what emerges is an “integrated services digital network,” or ISDN. This is a network built to a common set of electronic standards, or protocols, that convert communications signals from devices of all kinds to a single format that then can be transmitted at the speed of light rather than of sound.

The ISDN technology splits each existing phone line into three communications channels. That makes it possible, for example, for one member of a household to send computer data while another uses a phone on the same line to call a friend; the same line also can be used for such chores as monitoring a household security system, turning on lights or an air conditioner, or letting a utility company read water, gas and electric meters from its office.

At that point, said Sudhir (Sid) Ahuja, who heads a research unit at AT&T;'s Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J., true electronic meetings become possible. “You and I can literally have a meeting as if we were sitting across from one another.”

In an electronic meeting, participants don’t gather around a table but before phones and video screens in any locations linked by ISDN technology. The screens can display small images of each participant as well as documents and charts to be worked on during the meeting, with movable, color-coded “pointers"--one keyed to each participant--so that all hands know who is proposing what changes.

“You can share information, and you can shift from one ‘meeting’ to another by putting someone on ‘hold,’ or bring in a third party,” Ahuja said. GTE California operates a similar network linking 60 computer terminals and telephones in its offices in Ontario and Norwalk with company headquarters in Thousand Oaks. “We use it on a day-to-day basis,” said Lennard D. Glogauer, general manager of business applications.

Is this all too complicated for most people? Adler, the futurist, acknowledged that there are human limits. For one thing, he said, electronic meetings work best with teams and groups accustomed to sharing and coordinating activities and information.

“Where it doesn’t work so well,” he said, “is in sensitive negotiations--where, as someone put it, you want to go in and pound on somebody’s table.”

The effect of the technology on social behavior can be overstated, Adler warned. He recalled the unfulfilled predictions of a few years ago that computers would create “paperless” offices. For example, he said, electronic meetings might seem likely to reduce the need for business travel but in fact seems to encourage it.

“Studies over more than a decade show that the more people communicate the more reason they have to get together,” he explained. “What it does do is let people work together more intensively on a regular basis.”

Moreover, changes in the way people live may be no greater than those triggered by such previous major technological advances as the automobile or television, Adler said. Broadcasting, for example, “brought the salesman into the home,” and advanced telephone technology will extend that phenomenon to “bring the stores into the home.”

Major Test Planned

On a national scale, advanced telecommunications will get its first major commercial test later this year as the federal government begins phasing into operation an integrated telephone system that soon will tie together its vast and dispersed civilian work force. To perform the work, the General Services Administration awarded a pair of multibillion-dollar contracts last month to teams headed by AT&T; and U S Sprint to install the new system to serve the government’s civilian employees nationwide into the new century.

And in California, Fresno recently awarded a $2.9-million contract to Pacific Bell to build the state’s first such advanced system. The city now must maintain two separate networks--one to carry conversations, the other data, explained Paul Romito, assistant director of general services.

“We needed something that would be good for 10 years,” he said.

These advanced phone systems, said Ahuja of Bell Labs, allow “even more flexibility in your working hours. If you get a great idea at midnight, you can get up and work on it. Or you can cross time zones"--sending messages for retrieval during normal business hours--"and yet, you can work the information in an integrated fashion--voice, data or video.”

“It’s just pushing along the natural thrust right now to make things more flexible,” he said. “Communications are already going that way--for example, with car phones. This does the same with information generally.”

Most local phone companies are testing such information services on a limited basis. In Cerritos, for example, GTE California is about to begin an ambitious program that will offer to a sampling of residents information services and cable television by phone line, with a wide selection of films and starting times. Eventually, these connections will be upgraded to high-capacity, static-free, fiber-optic cables, making live video transmissions possible, among other things.

Consumer Interest

One marketing goal is to learn just what services appeal to consumers--not to mention what they are willing to pay for them, said Donald Bache, the project’s general manager. “This is a real-world test of new services and technology.”

There will, of course, be a price to pay for the technology that makes these advanced phone services possible. The basic phone bill of those who subscribe to the new features will easily double from the $25 a month paid today by the typical California residential customer. Consumer groups are worried, however, that all of this new technology will inevitably also mean higher costs for all customers--even those who only want inexpensive, local phone service.

But AT&T; consultant Brennan maintains that “the bottom line is that if you don’t want to do any of this you don’t have to. It’s kind of like broadcast TV versus cable TV versus pay TV.

“There will be levels of telephone service,” he said. “This will give you more options and greater flexibility. You’ll be able to design your own telephone network.”