They're going to set the lines buzzing

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The Independent Online
IT WAS one of those little coincidences. This week's news from British Telecom that it was cutting the price of weekend phone calls to a maximum of 10p for three minutes came out on the same day that postage rates went up yet again. Once upon a time it was actually cheaper to send a letter than to make even a local phone call. Now it is vastly more expensive - in fact it is cheaper to make a quick transatlantic call than to drop a note in the post.

And it will become cheaper still. We are in the early stages of a price war in telecommunications which 10 years from now will leave phone charges at a quarter, perhaps less, of their present rates. And mobile phone technology will have brought charges down to a point where most people in the industrial world will, if they want to, be able to afford a personal phone. The limits to telecommunications will not be financial, but social.

A vast amount has been written about the impact on the workplace of virtually free telecommunications: the fact that more people will be able to work from home; teleconferencing will reduce the need for work travel; national boundaries will become less relevant, because people will be able to live in a different country, even a different continent, from the one where they are employed. (If telecommunications were virtually free, night- time UK telephone-based services such as directory enquiries or home banking could be handled from New Zealand by people working ordinary 'office' hours.)

Much less thought, however, has gone into the effect of cheap telecommunications on the home - how we live rather than how we work. Yet the impact is going to be huge: just about everybody will find their ordinary lives changed.

The really interesting question is: what are the limits to our desire to communicate? At the moment phone use is shooting up in a seemingly unstoppable manner, even though calls are still quite expensive - for anyone with teenagers a quarterly phone bill is certainly a meaty item. And there is great untapped potential for mobile phones, which are still slightly unusual. It is perfectly possible to talk to the office from a mountain in Scotland, but it is expensive and, as I found when checking a column last week from the top of Criffell, you feel a bit of a nerd doing it.

Assume, however, that the technology will be able to do more or less anything and that it will be very cheap. What, then, are the limits? The most obvious one is time: how much of the day do people want to spend talking on the phone?

We cannot know for sure - no one in 1950 could have predicted that people would now typically be spending four or five hours daily watching television - but I suspect that the capacity to talk is far greater than the desire to listen, and this will cause the use of the phone to split in two directions: delayed response and real time.

Phone use for messages that do not require an immediate answer will soar. This will include the fax. David Hockney, who has developed fax as an art form, is probably right when he argues that the fax is also restoring the art of letter writing. When virtually everyone has a fax in the home, it will be a wonderfully efficient method of communicating.

Before the First World War there were up to seven postal deliveries a day in London. The normal way that business in the City communicated was by letter: one could write a note, post it at 9am, get a reply by lunchtime, and have the reply to that before close of play that evening. It was tremendously efficient - far more so than the modern routine of making a call, finding the person 'in a meeting', being away from the office when the person rings back, then trying to catch them later. A quick interchange of faxes has now got us back, in business life, to the time-efficiency of Victorian days.

If Hockney is right, the fax will take us back to Victorian letter-writing habits in our personal lives, too. The much-lampooned Newton, Apple's new personal communicator with its scratchpad and fax message system, may have its faults, but there is a powerful attraction in being able to send a written message that gets to its destination instantaneously but which the recipient can read at his or her convenience.

For non-letter-writers, expect even more use of the answerphone, which has the same quality as the fax (or the letter) of enabling the message to be sent when the sender wants, but which allows the recipient to respond, or bin it, at the time of his or her choice.

When it comes to real- time conversations, we may already be close to the limit of how long we are prepared to spend chatting on the phone. We are just beginning to evolve an etiquette to cope with an excess of phone calls. Most callers are sensitive enough not to prolong calls when the person they are talking to is clearly busy. But call-barring is still thought a little rude. To route all calls through the answerphone and then only break in when it is someone you really want to talk to is liable to bruise friendships.

If phone use continues to climb, though, it may become almost normal not to take calls except at particular times. If etiquette is not strong enough, technology will take over, and calls will be barred. Instead of picking up the phone when we are in the middle of something else and feeling irritated about it, people will spend an hour a day attending to their calls, rather as our grandparents would set aside time to attend to their correspondence.

What is quite clear is that somehow we will have to achieve balance in our lives. If we can in theory be reached at any time of day or night on our personal mobile phones, we will have to evolve some way of organising our privacy. It could simply be a question of switching off the mobile phone. But I suspect that there will be a more elaborate hierarchy of communications. Perhaps people will carry just one mobile phone, but it will have several numbers: one that always gets through and is given only to family and close friends; another more general number that can be switched on for normal use and is given to acquaintances and the office; and still another that is in the phone book (or its electronic successor) and which only takes recorded messages or faxes.

Telecommunications is at one of those periods of breakthrough. Suddenly there is a host of new ways in which people will be able to communicate with each other. Would that a fraction of the resources going into developing the new technologies were devoted to thinking how we can use those innovations to make our lives genuinely more satisfying.