Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cutting the Cord: Portable Telephony

"Hello?" [Image]

"Hi, Bob. Good thing I got a hold of you --
hisspfthssstth -- hello? Hello? Are you there?"

"I'm here. I think that -- ssspfthh -- noise was me. I'm
on the -- crackffthsss -- cordless."

"Me -- thsssthss -- too."

"Hang on a sec. I'll change channels."

"Good. That helped. So anyway, I --├┐sssthfthpsssth├┐--

"It's happening again."

"Do you think it's you -- thsssfthsssss -- or me this

"Lemme try -- sssthpfthss -- going into the living room."

"Hel -- sssthh -- lo?"

"Ssthhhpfth -- hello?"

"That -- sthhhfpth -- didn't help. Think it's a battery

"Maybe, but why don't you -- sssthpfthss -- change
channels, too -- sssthsffthpth -- just in case?"

"Yeah. OK I think that's better. Now what was I saying?
Was it about the office? Maybe it was.... No, no, that's
not it. Dammit!"


"I forgot."

Free to roam, not free of static

Before our society became so advanced, this conversation
rarely happened. The primitive nature of our tools meant
that we each stayed tethered to our respective phone
stations without questioning the performance of our
utility-provided devices. Now we're free to roam as we
telecommunicate, sampling the backyard's fresh air,
watering the plants throughout the house and (grrrr)
dealing with interference that's just a little less
irritating than nails on the blackboard. It seems that
the sin of losing the co rd has left us in that peculiar
circle of hell that involves being interrupted by static
just when we're about to tell the punchline.

If interference weren't bad enough, there's also the fact
that with an ordinary 46-49 MHz model -- the standard
cordless phone frequency -- your conversations (and
credit card numbers, catalog buffs) are essentially
broadcast to your surrounding few block s. You're
thinking, "Yeah, yeah, we've heard all the warnings
before." I used to take this lightly too, until I did my
first few phone tests and saw how easy it was to get a
scanner and dial into a cordless frequency. I got an
unfortunate earful of the c onversations being held
around 57th Street, but I've also gained a deeper
understanding of how those 900 numbers actually make so
much money.

"Surely not all phones are that bad," you say. You're
right. Some standard 46-49 MHz phones are equipped with
voice scrambling features for privacy, and recent
upgrades to a not-too-shabby 25 channels make it a little
easier to deal with interference. But if you'd like a new
phone that really cuts through the airwaves, a 900 MHz
digital spread spectrum phone is your best bet. Although
it'll lighten your wallet (expect to spend about $200 for
a good one), and eat through batteries more quickly, it
will bra ve some pretty harsh interference conditions and
stand up to eavesdroppers by sending the signal in
unrecognizable pieces through 100 or more frequencies.
Plus, it can almost triple your range so you can bring it
across the street without having your conn ection
interrupted. So while the old phones will be around to
give us headaches until the next millennium, we now know
there's hope.

But let's take a step back for a minute. Aside from our
pet peeves about performance, there's one huge problem
with the majority of cordless phones on the market: they
have the same overall shape as corded phones, give or
take a few updated curves. If we' re no longer stuck
sitting by the phone base, why should we still be
burdened with having to hold a receiver in one hand --
or, worse, pinched between shoulder and neck leaving us
walking around like Quasimodo? (This, by the way, is not
a cute look, desp ite what Disney will have us believe.
And it can cause serious problems in the neck and spine
by compressing the discs that separate vertabrae.)

A copy editor once said to me, "Y'know Carla, I just
can't understand why anyone would want a cordless. " I
stared at her blankly for a good sixty seconds, all the
while thinking to myself, "My God, woman, are you
completely blind to the opportunity for s imultaneous
activity that this invention has opened up?" I know we
New Yorkers are a little bit uptight about how we spend
our time, but don't we all like to fold the laundry while
talking to not-so-terse Aunt Tilly? Doesn't everyone want
to type away wh ile talking to Mark about her new edit --
oops, sorry, that's just me. [Harrumph. -- Ed.] We home
office workers really do need to sift through files,
consult reference books and wrestle that report out of
the dog's mouth while talking on the phone. Being
cordless has given us the freedom of peripatetic gabbing,
but now that we're in the other room, we really need both
hands free to clean up the mess we forgot we left there.

Introducing the cordless headset

Manufacturers may be a little wary of changing the basic
concept of a household staple like the telephone, but
now's the time. Going cordless has been great, but it's
also changed the way we use the telephone. Heretical as
it sounds, hands-free cordless p hones are really the
only thing that makes sense. Dorky headsets exist for
office workers [harrumph -- Ed.], but cordless ones are
relatively rare. Panasonic and Plantronics are among the
few companies offering them. See the Library
for details a bout the Panasonic SX-TC905W.

Cordless headsets are a minor miracle. It's tough to get
all those parts, antenna and all, into a light, sleek
wearable receiver, but heck, if we can play video games
with our minds as the makers of MindDrive, the new PC
game controller, have claimed, th en something like this
should be a breeze. Imagine hearing the phone ring,
slipping the receiver over your ear and getting dinner
ready as you catch up on the latest news from your best

Just how ridiculous will our lives be when we each tote a
headset/cordless phone around the house? It's too soon to
know. Until then, don't even think of putting your Mom
through the humiliation of speakerphone while you clean
the litterbox. Trust me, she 'll never forgive you.

# # #

This column is an exclusive.


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