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What cable will be when it grows up

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

What cable will be when it grows up

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

Cable TV is growing up, and when it turns the corner into adulthood we're not going to recognize it anymore.

It won't even be cable TV. It will be a lot more. Some believe it will be cable everything—cable computer connections, cable radio, cable shopping, even cable telephone.

It is this last function that is the most startling. Ever since the telephone was invented in the late 1800s, we've been talking on wires that one way or another belonged to the telephone company. When the giant Bell Telephone monopoly was broken up, other companies started putting up their own wires, but they were still telephone companies.

That's the essential fact of the current way we talk to each other—and the way we rig up our computers to talk to each other, too. Even calls from cellular phones, which use radio signals for part of the distance, are routed through the wires that belong to the telephone company, be it AT&T, MCI, Sprint or one of many others.

But that's likely to change drastically in the next few years. In some areas of the country, 80 percent of the homes and apartments have cable TV, and the national average is climbing to 60 percent or higher. This means that all of us whose homes are wired for cable are ready for the next stage in the development of electronic communications, like it or not.

We won't have to do anything except sign on the dotted line when the cable company comes knocking. The revolution will come to us.

Cable is ideal for the next generation of telephone service. It has a lot of what engineers call "bandwidth." That's technospeak for the kind of elbow room that signals need when they're hustling along a wire or speeding through the air. Regular phone lines have very little bandwidth.

AT&T and the other long-distance telephone companies are working hard to get rid of the old-fashioned telephone wires we're now using. They're putting in higher-bandwidth lines that can carry voice signals and such things as still pictures and computer chatter at the same time.

This won't do any good, of course, unless local telephone companies do the same thing. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so the only way that this improved telephone wire will do any good is for all of us to have it, all the way to the handset.

That won't happen soon. It's got to come at some point, but rewiring the entire nation will cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

You can see why cable TV connections look so attractive for telephone service. The cable is already there, and it has bandwidth to spare. There's just one thing in the way, and it's called inertia. As a group, the telephone companies won't like the idea of losing their business to cable operators, so they're likely to resist this kind of change with every lobbying tactic they can come up with.

But one telephone conglomerate, MCI, is already looking at cable as a supplement for its normal telephone service, and this could help AT&T and the others overcome their resistance. They'd need to join up with the big cable companies—something MCI is already exploring—and they'd have to convince federal regulators that they're not going to choke off competition from the small operators.

This kind of thing could take four or five years. But the pace of technological change in this final decade of the 20th century is burgeoning month by month, and I wouldn't be surprised to see cable telephone service start up by this time next year.

No matter how long it takes, one thing is certain. The telephone will never be the same.

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