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Ontario Technoblog

Ontario Emperor technology blog.

This blog has been superseded by the mrontemp blog
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Location: Ontario, California, United States

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Concerns About Using the Telephone with Personal Computers

The paper "Concerns About Using the Telephone with Personal Computers" was written by the late Jef Raskin (then of Apple Computer) on 9 October 1979, back when there was one telephone system that could potentially support receipt or transmission of 120 characters per second. Here are some excerpts (in italics), with my comments (in boldface):

Source: Jef Raskin, "Concerns About Using the Telephone with Personal Computers" (9 October 1979)-- in "The Macintosh Project: Selected Papers from Jef Raskin (First Macintosh Designer), Circa 1979," document 12, version 1.
Location: M1007, Apple Computer Inc. Papers, Series 3, Box 10, Folder 1.

The ordinary telephone lines are the only bi-directional electronic communication links between most people. This is not only true for the United States of America, but for a significant portion of the rest of the world as well. The telephone lines are therefore the most obvious and accessible means for implementing inter-computer communications at low cost.


Inter-computer communications for personal computers? Yes, Raskin was thinking in those terms. At the same time (October 1979) I was learning PASCAL in a freshman physics class at Reed College, and was starting to learn how to use "netnews," a form of inter-computer communications for minicomputers. And I was part of a small minority - "netnews" was only accessible from a selected group of university and military sites. The idea of having personal computers communicating with each other was, at this point, only an idea.

The technical problems have been solved, and electronic interfaces between computers, terminals, data acqusition and display devices and the phone line are inexpensive....

The bandwidth of the telephone service imposes some limit on the speed of transmission. Inexpensive interfaces operate at a maximum of 30 characters received or transmitted per second. More expensive interfaces could run at, say, four times this rate over the same lines. Such faster interfaces for personal use are still a few years away.


While we "ooh" and "aah" over 120 characters per second, bear in mind that the Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) concept didn't originate until 1988.

The main technical difficulties in using the phone network for personal computer communications is in adopting protocols that will allow computers to speak to one another....Assuming that this problem can be solved...we find another potential problem. The telephone system might start to move to disallow such use....

Note that "the telephone system" is referenced in the singular. The AT&T breakup didn't occur until 1982.

Dr. Gammill, of the Rand Corporation (in his Position Paper on Personal Computers in the 1980's) and others have suggested that the telephone company might seek to limit or control computer useage in order to maximize income by charging a higher rate for computer transmissions. Dr. Gammill points out that "from the point of view of the phone companies, personal voice communication is under-charged due to regulation of that market", and since the tarriffs only apply to voice communication, new tarriffs, at (presumably) higher rates would be applied to digital communication. This would require that the phone company have special equipment that can distinguish between the two grades of service....

Deregulation would change this equation somewhat, but not entirely.

The phone system is based on a statistical model of phone use. There are not enough lines and interconnections so that all possible non-conflicting calls can be made at once. The amount of equipment actually installed is based on assuming a certain percentage of the possible calls are being made at any time, and that calls have a certain distribution of lengths. Some calls last just a few seconds....

In the next few years the number of personal computers in use will remain under ten million, with only a percentage of these being equipped for phone transmission. But there are over 100 million phones in daily use. So the number of calls made for the sake of a computer connection will remain insignificant for the time being. The same cannot be said for the length of those calls....

I suspect that this phenomenon is one of the things the telephone companies are concerned about. It is not the number of calls, but the large increase in average length that may well cause problems.


The next section is fascinating futurism. Raskin had already postulated that the phone companies may charge higher rates for data calls. Now he anticipates that computer users may try to beat the system.

What must not happen is that the users of personal computers get into a cat and mouse game with the phone companies. A possible senario [sic] is this: a phone company sets up a special, higher rate for computer use. They add a circuit that detects the usual modem...frequencies and charges accordingly....The computer manufacturers make a modem that "sounds" to the phone company more like the voice, so their detectors don't work. The phone company builds a better detector, and begins to throw in random .15 second pauses that interfere little with speech but play hob with digital transmission. The computer buffs respond with error-correcting codes that correct for small pauses, and make still more voice-like modulation. The phone company could respond with a rate scheme that vastly increases the cost per minute after 10 minutes... This could be an expensive and counter-productive war.

If we have the various utitilty commissions and the Federal Communications Commission involved it may be years before true personal computer networking gets under way. There are various strategies that may be applied now: attempts to have legislation passed that will not allow the telephone company to discriminate based on the content of a telephone call (if they start with computers, will they eventually get the right to charge differently for, say calls with good news and calls with bad news? Do they have the right to listen in on a call at all to determine its content?) One might argue that deaf people can communicate via terminals over the phone and that they should not have to suffer a higher rate....


For the record, the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which forbade governments from taxing Internet access service, was passed...in 1998.

And Empoblog readers will be happy to know that Ron Wyden was involved. Don't know if Jay Kim voted on the measure.

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