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How Expensive Was Telephony Before The Internet?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A recent episode of South Park tackled the issue of the Internet and what would happen if it just disappeared. The town, discovering that their Internet doesn't work at home, mobs the local Starbucks looking for Internet access. The Starbucks employees turn them away because they don't have any. People are trying to find out what happened to the Internet, but can't because the Internet is down! One of the mob asks "what did we used to do to get news before the Internet?"

It's hard to think of anything in modern life that hasn't been touched or changed in some way by the Internet. There is no doubt that life as we know it would suddenly be a different place. Telephony is no exception.

The Internet did not start coming into the mass mindset until the mid 1990s, though I got my first taste of it in 1990 as part of a high school project. It wasn't anything like today's Internet, of course, being mostly text based. The World Wide Web didn't show up until I was in college. Once people caught wind of NCSA Mosaic and Netscape Navigator, the game was on!

I do remember a pre-Internet world. And while I could talk about a lot of aspects of this pre-Internet world, let's talk about it in terms of telephony. Telephony is a rather mature industry, having been around for over a century. Innovations, such that they were, were slow. And calls? They were expensive. How expensive? Here's an AT&T ad from 1984:

$10 an hour for a weekend or evening state-to-state long distance calling? For $19.95 a month, or $199 a year, you can get a phone line and unlimited calling within the U.S. and Canada through voip.com. Or how about the ad from 1986 that proclaims 64 cents a minute calling to the UK?

Two decades later, thanks to the Internet and worldwide deregulation in telephony, calls from the United States to the UK--using voip.com, at least--can cost as little as 1.2 cents a minute! Call charges vary by destination and whether or not you are calling a mobile phone, but even voip.com's most expensive rate for calling a UK number is a far cry from 64 cents a minute!

So to answer the original question of this post--what did we do before the Internet--at least with respect to telephony, we spent way too much money!