Wednesday, September 29, 2004

When local is long distance

I give online quizzes to my class and, as often happens, the computer messes up somewhere. So students leave messages, I reset their test, then call them back.

Only tonight, a twist. Two of my students left only long-distance numbers. The initial reaction, of course, was how rude. But as you think about it, you realize this is evidence of the paradigm shift in telecommunications to ubiquity and portability (or I suppose you could say ubiquitous portability). For these students, what was for me a long-distance number is all they have. To them, of course, it's not long-distance. It's a home number -- back home. They only live in this college city part of the year, so why get a "local" number. And with nationwide calling plans and friends with cell phones with nationwide calling plans, there is no long-distance for those students, their friends and families.

But the charge is there for me, even though the person lives but a few miles away.

This raises the fascinating prospect that we all could find ourselves someday paying long-distance charges to call the person down the street. Then, of course, there is the other business model that says eventually voice services become free, just data packets riding the network atop the more bandwidth-consuming services.

That day is some time away, however, while all those nationwide calling plans are here now and still mixed in with a lot of traditional landline phone service, so we'd be wise to get used to -- and explore -- this phenomenon.

It all seemed out of whack until I remembered -- our son at college got one of those plans here in Columbia so it would be a local call for Mom and Dad to reach him in Arkansas. But if he didn't also have his dorm phone, he'd be long-distance to everyone there, too.


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