It must be hard for millenials to imagine life without their mobiles. But there was a time (not that long ago) when phones were still big, black and made of Bakelite. They had rotary dialers, curly wires and real steel bells that actually rang when someone called. Most households had just one, and it was usually kept in the hallway on a piece of furniture that was part chair, part table and had a cubby for stowing phone books.
The home phone, with all its quirks, is pretty much a thing of the past now. People used to look up phone numbers, or memorise them to save time. Teens don’t have to suffer the mortal embarrassment of parents answering their calls and going “Ooooooh? Who are yooou?” when a member of the opposite sex calls. Nobody is forced to try and have private conversations in the hallway where the whole family can listen in.
A shared home phone brought all sorts of trouble with it too, especially for families. Back in the dark ages, there were plenty of bill-time rants about teenagers breaking household budgets by blabbing on the phone for hours. And scraps over phone bills often led to punitive measures like phone locks.
Phone locks were little padlocks that were meant to make dialling impossible... but they didn’t. Motivated teenagers have always been determined… and some enterprising genius figured out that you could still make calls by lifting the receiver and tapping out phone numbers with a finger on the cradle buttons. It took practice, but it worked, and it left poor baffled dads wondering why their bills were still so high. And there wasn’t much they could do about it because there weren’t properly itemised bills back then either. You just had to take Telecom Eireann’s word for it!
Sure, there have been loads of home phone innovations since the 80s. Voicemail, portable phones, extra extensions and gimmicks like call waiting. But nothing beats a mobile. Nothing. Mobiles are so cool that we even put up with insane pricing (remember 38 pence a minute?) just so we could walk around with our own personal private phone and use it wherever and whenever we wanted.
The amazing mobile was supposed to kill off the home phone, and people were preparing its obituary more than a dozen years ago. But it survived. Sure it’s taken a thumping, but its survival was helped by a surprise ally - the arrival of the internet.
In the 90s, the only way for the average shmo to get online was a thing called dialup. It was painful and gruesomely slow, but it needed a phone line to work (hence the name), so people kept their home phones. Then came DSL, the first proper home broadband, and it needed a phone line too. So we were forced to grimly hold on to our home phones, and we continued to pay line rental, even though we were making most of our calls with our mobiles.
This wheeze was great for Eircom... for a while. People had to keep phones they didn’t want, and fork out even more cash to get online. But customers didn’t like it, it really p***ed them off, and they’ve never forgotten it.
The memory of paying for line rental and internet access really shows up in how people shop for broadband today. Even though you can get very decent broadband coming in over a phone line for around €40 a month, it’s usually sold as part of a package that includes line rental, calls and broadband all together, and it puts people off. They hesitate because they just don’t want or need the phone. Even if they won’t use it, they’re suspicious. It’s a legacy thing. A bit of quiet rebellion against that memory of paying for line rental and internet access... one bill on top of the other.
So now people look at those broadband standalone products like wireless, and mobile and even cable. And if those services don’t work for them, they come grumbling back to DSL. They still don’t want the phone mind you, but they’ll take it if they have to.
It’s a bit of a pity this. The phone network is the only network that covers pretty much the entire country. It was built by the people to connect the people to each-other. And it still can. It’s just got to overcome its legacy as the home phone network. And in particular, it’s legacy as the “home phone I don’t need but have to pay for to get on the internet” network.
The thing is that wired broadband is often more reliable, faster and more stable than the alternatives. Sure, cable and fibre are deadly if you can get them. But there are huge areas of the country where you can’t. And that brings us back to DSL. Phone line based broadband.
So what am I on about? Well, a few companies have quietly introduced products that may help the phone network survive while simultaneously killing off the home phone. At long last, you can have just broadband over a home phone line. Really. You don’t need a phone, you don’t need to pay line rental separately. You don’t even need to buy off peak calls you won’t ever make. You buy just broadband.
Magnet and Vodafone now have products called “Simply Broadband”. There’s no phones, no off peak calls and no extra costs for line rental. Smart has something similar. Prices on these products start at around €30 with a usage limit and €40 for unlimited usage. A breath of fresh air and a good deal to-boot.
Now anyone who knows anything about DSL knows if you’re getting broadband over a phone line, some money has to be kicked upstairs to Eircom. They own the network and wholesale it out to all the other providers. Their cut has traditionally been the line rental part of the bill. It’s still there, but it’s now mixed in as part of the total cost. Customers don’t pay anything extra. So if a company like Magnet says up to 24Mb unlimited broadband for €40 a month, that’s it and you can expect your bill to be just that. Expect other DSL companies to jump in on this very soon.
Glossary for youngsters born since the 1980s
Bakelite – A kind of hard ceramic-like early plastic.
Dark Ages – The 1980s. It really was darker back then.
Dialup – Maximum 56K internet access over a phone line. A modem literally phoned your provider, made some screeching sounds, and got you online. Home internet speeds are now hundreds of times faster.
Memorised phone numbers – People really did this. Just ask an old person (40+). S/he probably remembers millions of them.
Pence – The coinage of the old Irish currency known as “Punts”. 38 pence is the modern equivalent of around €20.
Phone Book – A book that contained everyone’s name, address and phone number in a particular area code. A new one was delivered to every home with a phone once a year.
Phone Locks – They also really existed. Check one out here
Rotary dial – To ring a number, one had to stick a finger into a hole on a numbered disc, rotate it as far as it would go, then release. This was repeated until the number had been completed. The phrase to “dial” a phone number comes from this clever innovation.
Tapping – I learned this from Clodagh M. She was a master. It worked like this. The dial made a series of clicks when it was released. Four clicks when you dialled 4 and so on. To get around the locks, kids just tapped out the numbers on the cradle buttons instead.
Telecom Eireann – The old name for Eircom. Formerly the Department of Post and Telegraphs.