I’m writing this from the United Kingdom, staying with family but trying to keep up with work. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet – and cheap telecommunications – that’s relatively easy to do these days.
It still astounds me, though, just how cheap telecommunications really are. I have a cell phone SIM card that I use when I’m in the UK; when I get on the plane in the U.S. I remove the US SIM card from my cell phone and replace it with the UK card, and magically my U.S. phone becomes a British phone, with its very own British phone number. I forward my U.S. cell number to my Skype account using a Skype online number, and then forward my Skype account to the United Kingdom number, so when someone calls me in the U.S I receive the call in the United Kingdom.
Now, thanks to the vagaries of the United Kingdom cell phone market – in which you pay for outgoing, but not incoming, calls, and thus calling from outside the country to a cell phone inside the country is expensive – I get charged 29 cents a minute when calls are forwarded to my cell phone from the U.S. (Calls via Skype to a landline in the United Kingdom would be just 2.4 cents a minute.) But when I call from the United Kingdom to the U.S. on my cell phone, I’m paying just 3 cents a minute. (I’ve always thought that phone-call pricing is almost as illogical as airline pricing; it’s often cheaper to fly roundtrip than one-way, and it’s often much cheaper to call from A to B than from B to A.)
So, 3 cents a minute … $1.80 an hour. When I first moved to Colorado in 1991, it used to cost me 80 cents a minute to call my literary agent, and that was just calling California. A one-hour call to California back then cost $48. I don’t recall what it was to call the United Kingdom, but I’m sure it was more than $100; maybe $200? I suspect that my $1.80 hourly calls to the U.S are around 1 percent of the 1991 price and certainly way below 1 percent of the 1981 price.
When I first left the United Kingdom, way back in 1979, I simply didn’t call home. It was just too expensive for anything more than emergency calls. In fact receiving an unexpected call from the other side of the world was scary in those days, as you’d generally assume it was bad news. Perhaps one might call home at Christmas, but even then you’d say hello to a few people, tell them you’re fine and get off the phone as quickly as you could. I was working in the oil business, and now and then would hear stories about drunken ex-pats calling girlfriends or wives from some Third World country and ending $500 bills.
Of course we had no Internet connections, thus no e-mail. We did have Telex, though. For those of you too young to remember, a Telex machine looks like a large, clunky, electronic typewriter. (You know what a typewriter is, right?) You’d type a message, which would be sent across the phone lines and printed out, on paper, on another Telex machine the other side of the world. But even Telex messages were expensive enough for management to complain if you weren’t abbreviating the message telegram style. (Remember telegrams? Come on, you’ve seen old movies.)
In those days people actually wrote letters. It’s hard to imagine now, but we would use pens to write on paper. In fact, international travelers would use “aerogram” letters that comprised a single thin sheet that served as both letter and envelope _ once you’d written your letter, in tiny text on both sides of the sheet, you would fold this single sheet in three, lick and seal the gummed tabs, and presto, you’d have an envelope.
I recently found piles of these missives that I’d sent to my parents from various places around the world. These days I’ve pretty much lost the ability to write; I type very fast, but my handwriting becomes more or less illegible once I’ve written around 25 words.
Our kids take telecommunications for granted – cell phones, text messaging, e-mail, instant messaging, webcam video – but it’s all really quite recent and truly revolutionary stuff. There was a time when emigrating meant you’d probably never hear from your family again, beyond a letter every few years if you were lucky.
By the middle of the 20th century things were better, of course, but even then communications were either expensive, or affordable but slow and laborious. Now keeping in touch is so cheap and instantaneous that some families separated by the miles communicate pretty much every day.
When it’s cheaper to chat with someone the other side of the world for an hour than buy a cup of coffee, distance starts to have less meaning.
Peter Kent is the author of “Search Engine Optimization for Dummies.” For more information, visit www.PeterKentConsulting.com, or e-mail GeekNews @PeterKentConsulting.com.