How many years until General Direct Dialed telephony dies?


As I'd posted this poll a week or so back, general direct-dialed telephony, a/k/a PSTN (public switched telephone networks) seem to be in trouble. I think we could be within five years of their total collapse. And no, not just land lines (already about 25% of their peak in much of the US), but _all_ direct-dialed phones: mobile and VOIP included.

The problem, as I'd written before, is paradoxically the _low_ cost of calls. This is inducing tremendous volumes of junk calls, with one ...


... robocaller admitting to 57 million phone calls in an FTC report.

Online discussions of robocalls are filled with comments telling of how the writer no longer answers unknown numbers, or checks voice mail, if they have service at all.

And businesses are getting hit with both robocalls, to the point of putting lives at risk, and scams, costing dollars. Thousands per day.


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When the telephone was first introduced, and as it expanded through the 1950s and 60s, it was, as Facebook in the oughts, an aspirational instrument. Truman beat Dewey, but pollsters, relying on wealthy- and Republican-skewed polling, got the race wrong.

High-toll long distance made long-range romance expensive (and drove a younger me to the campus Unix server for 'talk' sessions with a certain someone), but also made low-level scams and fraud unprofitable. "Voicemail" used to be ...


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... called "answering machines", and when I was young, you didn't have either. Either you reached someone and left a message, or the number rang (never more than six times unless you were an insensitive clod), or returned a busy signal (ask an old). Fancy-pants people had secretaries who took messages on slips and routed them to you at the office. And all of this increased the costs of phone-based annoyances.

Another side of this is that wired landlines are dying, but costs remain.


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Serving a subdivision of 1,000 homes with 95% phone service costs about the same as one with 5% service -- the trunk lines and switchboxes still need to be there. But the revenues are 19x smaller.

And it's likely that the remaining customers are _not_ higher than average on the socioeconomic status. Though it seems people _will_ drop landline service rather than mobile, when push comes to shove. Landline subscriptions plummeted during the 2007-8 financial crisis, mobile rose.


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Which makes me suspect that telco providers, possibly even mobile, are inviting this. They want out of expensive landline obligations.

This, incidentally, mirrors some earlier patterns in networked industries, especially comms and transport. Transit systems especially were frequently private affairs in the 19th and early 20th century, but became government-owned, typically municipalised, especially in the 2nd half of the 20th century. The pattern I see is that _early_ network...


Show thread, particularly where highly-sought customers can be served in isolation (see the 1980s computer magazines @natecull posted earlier today, featuring ... zarrow people of colour) means early entrepreneurs can achieve high returns on investment. For both electrical and telephone grids, it wasn't until the US government established rural cooperatives for each that rural services were established in much of the country. So much for the free market.

Over a longer span, postal ...


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... services followed a similar route. Courier services were a private offering until an upstart maverick came up with the insane notion of a *government run* messaging service. Must've been some a-rab: bin Yamin something or other. (

And of course, high-value carve outs for overnight messaging became A Thing as jet air transport took off in the 1960s (after the USPS helped subsidise both rail and air transport in the 19th and 20th centuries): DHL, FedEx, UPS.


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What we're seeing now is the flipside of this transition. The phone network is becoming anti-aspirational, people don't like making, or receiving, phone calls, in general (though specific exceptions still exist). And the business side is getting increasingly unattractive.

One possibility is that government steps in in some way or another. For numerous reasons, including both old and recent history in the US, this is problematic. Putting the NSA in the driver's seat rankles.


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Another possibility is that a new set of bespoke messaging service providers emerges. We may already know several of these, or at least the contenders: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung.

A set of protocol- and api-based multimedia messaging protocols with centralised directories and abuse controls ... might ... arguably be better than what we have today. Though it's unlikely the contenders will play nice with each other, or spare the plebes.

This happened before.


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It's pretty much the history of the early telephone industry in the US, where one scrappy upstart, first known as the Bell Patent Association, or later and more popularly, as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, struck on the bulletproof business plan of buying up long-distance connections and denying them to any competitors.

While AT&T's 1980s anti-trust conviction is fairly well-known, the fact that the company operated under anti-trust restrictions (and, to be sure, a ...


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... de facto government-granted monopoly) since *1913*, originally the Kingsbury Committment ( In the 1950s, additional restrictions, including on the sale of computer systems, meant that when a couple of upstart AT&T programmers wrote a game-playing system the company realised it couldn't sell it, and so gave it away for free. That was called Unix. (

My experience is that similar conditions lead to similar behaviours, and that we'll ...


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... likely see a reprise of business practices and behaviours during the monopoly-forming period of the early phone system. That will include gamesmanship over protocols, patents, backplanes, and last-mile connections. It's going to be really ugly, probably for a decade or two.

(Assuming there's anyone to connect and any technical way to do so.)

Another possibility is some sort of distributed mesh federated system. I'd like to see that, I have my doubts it will scale particularly well.


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I'm more than happy to be proved wrong. But past systems seem to have first shown issues at about 100k users, and hit substantial problems as _actives_ climbed into the 1m - 10m range.

The fact that Facebook _has_ scaled to _billions_ is actually quite an accomplishment. The problems have finally appeared, but they were kept in check for quite some time.

For open and federated systems, there seem to be a number of failure paths, though I'll save those for another discussion.


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What's possible as well is that a new comms system will grow out of some institution that finds it has a pressing communications issue and has the means within itself to come up with a solution. This is in fact how virtually all previous communications technologies have emerged.

Clay tablets and papayrus from grainkeepers and priests (often one and the same), the telegraph was a natural adjunct of railroads, for both right-of-way and signaling and messaging needs.

The Internet ...


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... was co-developed by the US Military, who needed a highly-resilient communications network, and US academics, who wanted a cheap one. Features including file transfer, remote access, email, group communications via Usenet, and the Web grew from this and similar (Cern/WWW) requirements.

The careful reader will note that I've not mentioned who lead in early adoption of the telephone, and truth is I don't know -- information isn't clearly available at least on brief search. Though ...


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... I suspect that banking, government, military, and news applications were among the early and prominent ones, possibly with the first world war playing a significant role.

And the adoption curve does suggest wartime acceleration (and a Depression depression). The 50% adoption mark wasn't reached until over 50 years after the telephone's invention.

(Source: HBR:

But somewhere in that history should be clues as to what might lead next-gen comms development.


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And I've got a hunch that it's going to be some sector, one that's highly information and communications dependent, with a mix of _both_ uniformity _and_ multi-agency, which might lead the path out.

That is: It's got to be cohesive enough to be able to make decisions and have an agreed common set of needs. But it's also got to be diverse enough that independent agents are working collaboratively and cooperatively toward a solution. An entirely in-house system for in-house ...


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... consumption won't work.

A consortium of multiple governments -- say, the leading industrial US states (California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, modulo politics), or a consortium of national states (say, within the EU) might pull this off. Academia again is a possibility. The financial sector. A set of major shipping or trading companies, possibly.

The problem with the IT industry, as it stands today, particularly the advertising and retail-driven FAANG ...


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... companies, is that their incentives are _not_ strongly aligned with their users (though they've got strong incentives to general usability). That should count as a handicap for Google/Alphabet, Facebook, and Amazon. Looking at other major tech companies, IBM, Accenture, Oracle, SAP, and Salesforce are other contenders, though these lack a strong public element. And each tends somewhat too strongly to NIH solutions.

The possibility is that as with Unix and AT&T, the solution will...


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... appear out-of-sector, though I don't have any strong leads on where that might be.

Another possibility is that the extant PSTN might get its collective shit together. As has been noted (including in comments by @szbalint to this thread) the robocall and other issues plaguing the US aren't evident elsewhere, notably Europe.

Whilst I _do_ think that regulatory reforms might address the immediate problem (my vote: chargeback to the connecting telco for spam calls, with those then ...


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free to pass those costs on to their upstream(s) until the problem is resolved, effectively de-profiting the trade) I suspect the underlying structural problems in PSTN are too severe, even in its mobile and VOIP variants.

And, more importantly, that the fixes won't come in time to prevent major defections from the network, which is what its death entails. As I posted to HN: within the next five years, at least one firm in the Fortune 100 will publicly cease use of PSTN. And for the ...


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... rest of us, the idea that you can count on the fact that a business, organisation, or individual can make or receive PSTN calls will no longer be 90%, or even 50%, assured. (I suspect the breakdown point is somewhere close to 71%, at which point the chance that any _two_ entities have phone access reaches 50%.)

And once that point is reached, things will change very, very quickly. The flipside of network growth dynamics, with their positive-feedback cycles, is network _decline_.


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Also featuring positive-feedback, but now to negative effect.

And if we _don't_ have some universal replacement ready to roll, expect to see some pretty disruptive times ahead for general-purpose comms. Protocol replacement is a real bear. (That's one of the federation failure modes, by the way.) And coming up with a way to replace _even a clearly bad and poorly working protocol_ is painful. Like PSTN. Or SMTP, or IRC, or HTML, or PGP.

And no, I really don't have solutions, ...


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... though I think I've got some sense of the terrain ahead and useful lessons from the past.



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Junk calls are mostly a FCC-related problem.

They don't really happen in Europe. The FCC messed up in enforcing existing laws and regulations to go after shady companies and telcos for allowing the junk call situation to develop.

@szbalint Fair point (and I addressed that late in the tootstorm). I think the structural problems with PSTN are too great, and that the defections will hit too soon for either extant US telcos to recover or continue.

I also suspect that the EU and elsewhere may simply be lagging the US experience by a few years, though we should find out on that point fairly shortly. The same underlying switching and signalling limitations as apply to the US also apply to Europe, and bad actors will bad act.

@szbalint @dredmorbius Actually they do happen in Europe, at least in .de and .nl. especially the Microsoft support scam is common. While you can get numbers cancelled through an easy process the indian call centers will just get a new SIP prefix...

or you got 'tu-du-doot', in which case you fat-fingered the wrong number 🤣

@dredmorbius It's the #@*&#@$ topology - any can reach any in one step is a nightmare. An absolute nightmare. That's what's going to take us down. We need something like web of trust to put a distance metric back in; anything that doesn't have one is going to implode.

@feonixrift Friction can warm the heart, and distance has its place!

WoT has been in the news of late, and not in a good way.

There's a particularly interesting relationship between trust and comms technologies, and it tends to bode poorly as well. I think comms tech improvements _erode_ trust, on net. Though I may be wrong.

you should blog more, or use a #Fediverse instance with higher character limit. ;)

@FiXato The blog is ... on my to-do list.

(The to-do list is ... not on my blog.)

@dredmorbius same :) I currently blog on an ancient Wordpress fork hosted by, but I'm keen to transition to something that interacts with the #fediverse, as well as publishing to the web. I've considered using apps that allow long form posts and speak a number of federation standards. Eg #Friendica (#OStatus, #Diaspora, #ActivityPub) or #Hubzilla (all those plus #Zot). I'm also watching the tech deployed for @blog (WP + plugins).

Will hopefully longform thoughts later but I need to let them percolate.


> Thoughts?

That's probably the longest tootstorm I've seen in my entire life, and by a wide margin. Have you considered making it a blogpost? You (used to?) run a subreddit.

@temporal I've written longer ;-)

And yes, I'm sort of pent-up from not having a blog to write to. That's being worked on.

@temporal Following the hashtag will lead you to some. This has 56 toots, assuming I counted correctly (and I usually ... don't):

@dredmorbius now for real thoughts.

I expect the phone to die a slow but sure death, first landlines and then mobile.

WRT. trends in history, my somewhat unsophisticated observation is that any piece of infrastructure technology that enters private market becomes first a battleground of morally bankrupt companies trying to become _the_ platform / _the_ provider, followed by stabilization on minimum viable set of common features; that stabilization happens when competition between morally bankrupt



companies jumps to an adjacent, fresh field where there's a lot of value to be captured. The end result seems to be that we're building our civilization on minimum viable technologies - once we have something that barely works as a foundation, it gets boring and private sector gets excited about something else.

Internet is somewhat solid because it took a long time before full-blown competition started.

(Not sure if my theory isn't invalidated by airplanes; passenger air seems a-ok



as tech, but then again, it's highly regulated).

I'm worried that whatever it is that replaces telephones will be worse in its usability, as dominant players each try to extract maximum value from their networks. It's what happened to IM space now; it used to work OK in IRC/ICQ days; now everything is shinier and more accessible, but I have to run 5 IMs just to talk with all my friends and co-workers.

It's sad because, taking a global view, we could do it right from the get-go, instead



of having to suffer decades of war for market domination, only to later pick the pieces and try to live with a minimum viable base infrastructure until it gets so uncompetitive against fresh new battleground that it gets scrapped entirely - like phones are about to.


@temporal @dredmorbius

I think you're describing the most visible subset of the investor class. They'll move on to whatever has the highest reward for the risk and they make the most noise because they're trying to attract suckers^Winvestors. But actual technology usually continues to be improved after it's stopped being cool. It's just that this is funded by revenue.

For example: the cheapass toaster I bought in 2007 is *way* better than the one my parents had.

@suetanvil @dredmorbius it doesn't always improve on the proper axes, though. As a counterexample, the microwave oven we have now, or one that I bought for my previous apartment, are much worse from the one that my parents bought some 20+ years ago.

Fun fact, that 20+ years old microwave oven *still works*, as good as new. Whereas I don't expect such lifetime from any appliance bought today.

@suetanvil @temporal @dredmorbius
In some ways, maybe.
But then there are designs like the Sunbeam Radiant Control toaster which puts almost any modern electro-magnet toaster to shame for it's simplicity, function and longevity. The race to the bottom does claim good design for cost savings at scale. Even for toasters :3

@Irick @temporal @dredmorbius

Depends on your priorities, I guess. Mine has some kind of chip in it that lets me select frozen/unfrozen and bread options plus a manual eject. These are all buttons on a plastic panel so I can’t burn myself on it.

It’s probably a better fit for me. But regardless, it R&D is being done on toasters.

@dredmorbius let's take it back to first principles. All else being equal, we want to encourage voice comms over text (quicker etc). It's useful for an organisation, household, or person, to have an address by which any stranger can initiate a voice call. Examples; the 111 system or customer enquiries; a lost child calling home (where they don't have a personal calling device with them), a rep from an organisation following up on an enquiry initiated via text comms (eg web form or email).

@dredmorbius as you describe, #POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) was established to do that, just as fax was established to do the same thing with images (usually but not always text documents). Fax has mostly been relaced with email and a range of centralized systems (wikiwebs, GoggleDucks etc). The cell phone system is the fax of voice and has already been mostly abandoned in China (in favour of #WeChat).


@strypey It is *NOT* helpful to have a means by which any random stranger may interrupt at any time.

It *IS* helpful to be able to receive useful or significant messages at any time.

The problem of random *NONUSEFUL* messages is making the ability to receive random *USEFUL* messages all the more untenable.

It's rare that information from a complete unknown must be tended to immediately, and hence, there are alternate comms methods, esp. postal mail (at ~$1/contact fully costed).

@strypey Postal spam remains viable, but only for large entities with a significant budget, and probable gains, for the most part.

That random access is adding up to very real costs, which is the whole point of this thread:


Which means that legitimate participants will start defecting from the system. A problem telco engineers identified years ago. (I've worried about it for some time myself, but found their concerns validating.)

@strypey We've seen a sequence of hops to new systems whose principle benefit was actually that world+dog was *NOT* on them. Rather, particpation was generally skewed upwards by various demographics: education, social status, wealth, general trust.

As the rest of the world intruded, net value started declining. Usenet died. Email ... is dying. FAX died (fax spam is *BAD*). MySpace died. Facebook ... has issues.

I"ve even heard grumblings about Mastodon...

@strypey The low technical costs of utilising advanced telecoms were useful when limited to agents you wanted to talk to or hear from.

But that same dynamic becomes a negative as The Other Kind becomes more prevalent.

You can have low costs and global reach + exclusive access OR impose either costs or highly-effective filtering mechanisms.

Defection from earlier comms tools has not been driven purely by cost, but also by channel pollution.

@dredmorbius I was only just getting started with my response but got interrupted. I'll continue tomorrow. FWIW I don't think reiterating at length the points from the original thread really helps either of us :/

@strypey Agreed.

If I'm reiterating, it's not deliberate.

Though I impress myself with my consistent arguments ;-)

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