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Ignorance, There's No Excuse.
by Judge Dredd
TELEPHONE SERVICES: A GROWING FORM OF ›FOREIGN AID'
Keith Bradsher, ¤The New York Times‡, Sunday, October 21, 1990
(Business section, page 5)
Americans who make international telephone calls are paying extra to
subsidize foreign countries' postal rates, local phone service, even
schools and armies.
These subsidies are included in quarterly payments that American
telephone companies must make to their counterparts overseas, most of
these are state-owned monopolies. The net payments, totaling $2.4
billion last year, form one of the fastest-growing pieces of the
American trade deficit, and prompted the Federal communications
Commission this summer to begin an effort that could push down the
price that consumers pay for an international phone call by up to 50
percent within three years.
The imbalance is a largely unforeseen side effect of the growth of
competition in the American long-distance industry during the 1980's.
The competition drove down outbound rates from the United States,
while overseas monopolies kept their rates high.
The result is that business and families spread among countries try
to make sure that calls originate in the United States. Outbound
calls from the United States now outnumber inbound calls by 1.7-to-1,
in minutes -- meaning American phone companies have to pay fees for
the surplus calls. The F.C.C. is concerned that foreign companies are
demanding much more money than is justified, given the steeply falling
costs of providing service, and proposes to limit unilaterally the
payments American carriers make.
Central and South American countries filed formal protests against
the F.C.C.'s plan on Oct. 12. Although developed countries like
Britain and Japan account for more than half of United States
international telephone traffic, some of the largest imbalances in
traffic are with developing countries, which spend the foreign
exchange on everything from school sys ms to weapons. The deficit
with Columbia, for example, soared to $71 million last year.
International charges are based on formulas assigning per-minute
costs of receiving and overseas call and routing it within the home
country. But while actual costs have dropped in recent years, the
formulas have been very slow to adjust, if they are adjusted at all.
For example, while few international calls require operators, the
formulas are still based on such expenses.
Furthermore, the investment required for each telephone line in an
undersea cable or aboard a satellite has plummeted with technological
advances. A trans-Pacific cable with 600,000 lines, announced la
Wednesday and scheduled to go into service in 1996, could cost less
than $1,000 per line.
Yet the phone company formulas keep charges high. Germany's Deutsche
Bundespost, for example, currently collects 87 cents a minute from
American carriers, which actually lose money on some of the off-peak
rates they offer American consumers.
MORE CALLS FROM THE U.S. ARE GENERATING A GROWING TRADE DEFICIT
U.S. telephone companies charge less for 1980 0.3 (billions of
overseas calls than foreign companies 1981 0.5 U.S. dollars)
charge for calls the United States. So 1982 0.7
more international calls originate in the 1983 1.0
United States. But the U.S. companies pay 1984 1.2
high fees to their foreign counterparts for 1985 1.1
handling those extra calls, and the deficit 1986 1.4
has ballooned in the last decade. 1987 1.7
1989 2.4 (estimate)
THE LONG DISTANCE USAGE IMBALANCE
Outgoing and incoming U.S. telephone traffic, in 1988, the latest year
for which figures are available, in percent.
Whom are we calling? Who's calling us?
Total outgoing raffic: Total incoming traffic:
5,325 million minutes 3,155 million minutes
Other: 47.9% Other: 32.9%
Canada: 20.2% Canada: 35.2%
Britain: 9.1% Britain: 12.6%
Mexico: 8.8% Mexico: 6.2%
W. Germany: 6.9% W. Germany: 5.4%
Japan: 4.4% Japan: 4.3%
France: 2.7% France: 3.4%
(Source: International Institute of Communications)
COMPARING COSTS: Price range of five-minute international calls between
the U.S. and other nations. Figures do not include volume discounts.
Country From U.S.* To U.S.
Britain $2.95 to $5.20 $4.63 to $6.58
Canada (NYC to $0.90 to $2.25 $1.35 to $2.26
France $3.10 to $5.95 $4.72 to $7.73
Japan $4.00 to $8.01 $4.67 to $8.34
Mexico (NYC to $4.50 to $7.41 $4.24 to $6.36
West Germany $3.10 to $6.13 $10.22
* For lowest rates, callers pay a monthly $3 fee.
WHERE THE DEFICIT FALLS: Leading nations with which the United States
has a trade deficit in telephone services, in 1989, in millions of
W. Germany: 167
South Korea: 112
Dominican Republic: 75
Italy: 70 (Source: F.C.C.)
THE RUSH TOWARD LOWER COSTS: The cost per telephone line for laying
each of the eight telephone cables that now span the Atlantic Ocean,
from the one in 1956, which held 48 lines, to the planned 1992 cable
which is expected to carry 80,000 lines. In current dollars.
1983 23,000 (Source, F.C.C.)
1992 5,400 (estimate)
CRY AGAINST THE TYRANNY OF VOICE MAIL
Michael Schrage, Los Angeles Times Syndicate; Published in ¤The Boston
Sunday Globe‡, October 21, 1990, page A2.
Watson! Come quickly! I need you!
"The party you are trying to reach -- Thomas Watson -- is unavailable
at this time. To leave a message, please wait for the beep. When you
are finished with the message, press the pound sign. To review your
message, press 7. To change your message after reviewing it, press 4.
To add to your message, press 5. To reach another party, press the
star sign and enter the four digit extension. To listen to Muzak,
press 23. To transfer out of phone mail in what I promise you will be
a futile effort to reach a human, press 0 -- because we treat you like
Who hasn't made a perfectly innocent phone call to an organization
only to be ensnared in a hideous Roach Motel of a voice mail system?
No matter if you call a Fortune 500 behemoth or the local mall, the
odds are increasing that you will listen to a machine before you talk
with a human.
In 1985, barely a thousand corporate voice mail systems were sold in
the United States. By the end of this year, the industry expects to
sell more than 30,000 systems. Depending upon their designs, you
might never talk with a human -- no matter how desperately you'd like
to. So ask not for whom the voice mail networks, it networks for
"Based on my personal experience, five percent of these systems are
superbly designed, 20 percent are poorly to abysmally designed, and
the rest fall in between," says sociologist James E. Katz, who studies
the human impact of telecommunications systems for Bellcore, the
research arm of the regional Bell operating companies.
What superb voice mail design means, of course, is in the ear of the
holder. Some people would rather chat withthat won't
interrupt than with the human that almost certainly will. Some people
would rather dictate their thoughts; others want the comfort and
courtesy of a voice that's not prerecorded.
But that's not the real question. Far more interesting is what these
systems say about the organizations that use them.
Just as the design of the office or a tacit employee dress code speaks
volumes about an organization's culture, so do the telecommunications
networks it offers to the outside world. The well-designed system
conveys a pleasant blend of efficiency and warmth. The
"technobnoxiousnetwork" reveal the mix of self-importance and
incompetence that permeates too many companies.
The new technology rewrites telephone etiquette even as is it
generates new frontiers of rudeness. You might believe that the
secretary lost the message; you're skeptical if they say the voice
mail system crashed. The network becomes as much a crutch as a
communications tool. Come on! Are you really always in meetings or
are you using ice mail as a shield to deflect the unexpected call?
Voice mail creates new classes of interaction in the professional
world. (It also creates the ominous specter of voice mail hackers --
telephone intruders who break into systems to eavesdrop on messages or
surreptitiously plant em.) While many of these new classes are a
boon to organization effectiveness, they can also signal a subtle but
insulting contempt of outsiders.
The irony here is that voice mail is one of those rare technologies
that made the reverse migration from the home to the office. For all
their initial awkwardness, answering machines were designed to make
life easier for all parties concerned.
The overwhelming reason why most companies buy voice mail systems
isn't to make life better for people calling in, but rather to make
intra-company communications more efficient at lower cost.
"What we're seeing is the hollowing of the organization social
system," says Rensselaer Polytechnic's Langdon Winner, author of
"Autonomous Technology," an influential critique of technological
innovation. "Instead of complementing the way people communicate in
organizations, the technology is designed to replace it."
That, says Winner, creates a very different kind of social system --
one where people would rather transfer you to the technology than deal
with you themselves. Why? Because that is the value that the
organization is trying to reinforce.
"I think it's regrettable that so many organizations fail to
adequately consider the needs of the customers when they install these
systems," says Bellcore's Katz. "They mainly consider the internal
needs of the company so outsiders get turned off to the whole
experience when the call in and try to talk to someone."
While becoming "lean and mean" is a touchstone of American management
these days, I'm not certain that all this leanness and meanness was
supposed to be inflicted on the organization's customers. Indeed,
voice mail illustrates one of the seeming paradoxes of business
practice: How do you become more cost-effective while, at the same
time, offering customers greater value and better service?
Sure, technology is supposed to give you both -- but only if it is
designed and implemented with re and thought. The nasty implicit
message embedded in most voice mail systems is: "We're too busy to
have anyone talk with you. Let us treat you like a data entry device
and don't forget to press the pound key after you shut up. If we have
the time, we may even get back to you."
I don't think there's much question that most voice mail systems do an
excell t job of coordinating internal communications and boosting
group productivity. But does it come at the price of alienating
Professionally, I like the eas and versatility that voice mail offers
-- when I'm using it. Personally, I'm sick and tired of playing
telephone tag with machines instead of people.
The poor quality of so many voice mail systems underscores one of the
most painful truths of technology: We would rather use these new media
to make life easier for ourselves than o make it easier for others.
In the short run, that may make us more "productive." In the longer
run, what we'll discover is that people would rather not call us any
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