Connected: Reliable phone service a thing of the past

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We've become accustomed to laughing at images of the cordless home phone that Jerry Seinfeld used on his TV sitcom and the smiling face that was Lily Tomlin's hallmark as telephone operator, Ernestine, at her old-fashioned switchboard. But laugh as we might, those images were made during a time that we took telephone service for granted.

Unlike the old days, today we can't expect that telephone service will be there when we need it.

Superstorm Sandy once again proved that modern telephone service is less reliable than it was in the 1960s through early '80s when telephone service chose us based on where we lived instead of us choosing which telephone service to use.

On Tuesday during the storm, cellular service was not working properly in as much as 25 percent of the area highly affected. The situation was so bad that T-Mobile and AT&T actually shared networks in the affected area. That's a highly commendable action for both companies, but it still doesn't gloss over the fact that today's telephone services are inferior to those of just 20 years ago.

Sandy is not the only time we've had problems with phone service on a widespread basis in recent years. And frankly, most of us have become accustomed to not having service fairly frequently.

With cell service, when we have problems, we call them dead zones. Most of us have figured out where many of them are, so it's not unusual to be told while on a phone call, "I may lose you momentarily." There's a dead zone in my daughter's high school - and in most supermarkets.

It's not just cell service. If you have FiOS service and your power goes out, you'll lose your connectivity after you use your phone for a few hours because those calls would be powered by a battery backup in your home.

That's very different from traditional landlines where that ever-present dial tone indicates that you're getting power to your phone. Landline power comes from the phone system itself, not from a local electricity provider.

Do I need to remind you about the furor that happened when the iPhone first came out - and AT&T couldn't complete calls because there were too many of them?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Federal Communications Commission issued a tip sheet about how to communicate more effectively in such an emergency. Aside from asking you to limit call length and not to make unnecessary non-emergency calls, the commission had some interesting ideas, including:

• For non-emergencies, try text messaging because texts may go through when calls don't.

• If one communications service doesn't work, try another. That is, switch between Verizon, AT&T & T-Mobile to get a good signal - or use a landline if you find one.

• When your cell phone is unable to connect, wait 10 seconds before redialing to give the service time to clear the old call from the local tower. The cell sites that handle your cell call have the capacity to handle only a limited number of calls at once. Too many calls clog them.

We chuckle every time my son's cell phone plays the James Bond theme to indicate an incoming call. Frankly, though, I think I'd rather hear Ernestine's "One ringy-dingy" and know that my call will get through every time. That's a sense of security, our kids will unfortunately never know.

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Follow David Radin on Twitter @dradin or learn more at www.megabyteminute.com.


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