What Time to Call?

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Last week’s brutal storms and a hellish personal schedule have forced me to wire into every technology known. Stuff like caller ID, voice mail, e-mail and text messaging. Not that I know how to do it but my wireless phone can even take photos that can be sent electronically. For once I can actually say a nice word about Cable TV, its local access channels, the Weather Channel and about 200 stations that play old movies late at night.

And they all come together in my den. My cozy, warm den. The one that I don’t have to leave when there’s twelve inches of snow and howling winds. Yes, I love the digital age and it’s only in its infancy.

The idea of an electronic cottage captured my imagination 25 years ago when I attended a lecture given by the late Dr. Alvin Toffler about his book: “The Third Wave”. He saw this day coming. He worried that people would be wired in so many ways that their biggest problem might be that they’d be overwhelmed. He was right in the sense that this kind of convenience can really be addictive.

I can bang out responses to e-mail before dawn. I’ll zip this column through cyber-space to dozens of newspapers minutes after it’s done. More than one editor has responded from the comfort of their homes, I can tell by the e-mail return addresses. To me it’s almost scary that courtesy of the Internet readers from all over the planet can tell me what they think of my scribbling.

What’s next? I don’t think I’m going to like it. A friend of mine was telling me about her web cam. That’s an Internet camera and she got one to keep in touch with her grandson on the west coast. I don’t think I want one of those and you definitely don’t want to see me at 5AM. I’ve never been much of a pretty picture but at that hour I could scare the wicked. The other day a guy called me early in the morning as I was getting out of the shower. If I had a web cam and hit the wrong button he would have started his day with a sorry sight. I asked my digitalized 18-year-old about the computer cameras and he says they’re still a little slow and fuzzy but that’s going to get better over the next couple of years when the costs of cable and telephone service might come down.

Cable prices coming down? That hasn’t happened since the first TV cable was strung over a mountain in Schuylkill County nearly 60 years ago. But a battle is raging in the digital divide that could finally break the cable monopolies’ strong hold all over the state.

Phone company giants Quest Communications and Verizon are slinging their formidable checkbooks at each other trying to acquire rival MCI. MCI was really the first rebel phone company formed in 1967. That led to the anti-trust break up of the last real phone monopoly: AT&T. Critics say that Verizon’s acquisition of MCI would take us back to AT&T’s dark days of fixed prices and high rates.

But that’s not going to happen. Pennsylvania’s major cable player, Comcast, has begun to offer telephone services. Five dominant wireless phone companies offer alternatives that have turned many a young mind away from the idea that a phone ever has to be plugged into the wall. All kinds of Internet connections grow faster every day. In Pennsylvania if Verizon ultimately acquires MCI it puts them in a strong position to battle it out, house to house with cable companies and in the end prices will fall. Consumers will win that fight.

I enjoy all the new gadgets. Someday when the picture is better and the service is cheaper I guess I’ll get one of those web cam things. When I do I’ll be sure to give everybody plenty of warning about what time to call.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.

[email protected]