Can You Hear Me Now?

“You see, this consists of a multibillion-dollar matrix of space age technology that is so sophisticated even we can't handle it. But that's your problem, isn't it? So the next time you complain about your phone service, why don't you try using two Dixie cups with a string? We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company.”
Lily Tomlin from “Saturday Night Live” long, long ago

Once upon a time, in a universe far, far away, there was an empire called American Telephone & Telegraph. If you used a telephone, you were a subject of the empire. The people hated the tyranny of the empire. They worked and innovated to overthrow it.

First, they sued to be able to buy and use their own phones. They won. Then, they built and used a new technology for long distance calls. It surged. Finally, they broke the empire into pieces called ROCs, for regional operating companies. A new age of telecommunications blossomed.

But the reduced empire didn’t learn from the rebellion. It still thought it could push its remaining subjects around. Around the turn of the millennium, when it introduced wireless Internet access over its telephone network, it claimed that it was the fastest network in big, full-page newspaper ads. I believed those ads. I bought the service so I could send columns while on my Borderland motorcycle trip reporting on the U.S./Mexico border in 1999.

By the time I reached Yuma I had found that the service was too slow to be usable and abandoned it. It became necessary to register in hotels that offered Internet access. A few months later Mobile Computing magazine tested the competing services. Their finding: AT&T was the slowest, not the fastest.

That’s why I’m not an old empire customer.

But the old empire found new energy when it gained exclusive distribution rights to a new kind of phone. The Apple iPhone, introduced in mid-2007, is changing computers and telecommunication. If you have one, you know. If you don’t, you wish. More than 22 million people have bought iPhones. Many more would if availability wasn’t tied to the old empire.

But it is. Now hardly a day goes by without some blog speculation on when there will be a Verizon version of the iPhone.

Once again, the people are suffering. Surveys consistently rank the old empire as the worst wireless service provider. And the service has declined as the abundant use of the iPhone has risen.

Only weeks ago in New York, the old empire announced that no one could buy an iPhone off its website. The old empire never admitted that it was the source of the poor service. Instead, it announced that New York “wasn’t ready” for the iPhone. After a storm of protest, the old empire relented.

The old empire doesn’t understand that the only reason millions of people use its service is it was the only way to get a working iPhone.

So a new rebellion is brewing.

Today, insurgent consumers are looking for ways to use the iPhone without becoming subjects of the old empire.

One method, recently shown on C-NET, is what engineers call a Kludge. Unrelated to the Klingon empire of “Star Trek” fame, a Kludge involves awkward combinations of technical things. Those who want an iPhone without old empire service can cobble together a wireless Wi-Fi connection from Verizon and run it through an iPhone.

Another complicated path is to use a version of the Apple iTouch with Skype, limiting your phone calls to places where you have a Wi-Fi connection.

Others make claims on YouTube to open an iPhone for use on other networks. Sadly, most of these claims for hacking an iPhone are untrue: The Apple iPhone works only on a type of network used by the old empire, but not used by its major competitors.

Most people, of course, will simply wait until there is an iPhone for other networks —or a new phone that is equally gifted. That may have happened when Google introduced its new phone, without a network affiliation.

If the old empire had learned, it would have run with the opportunity presented by the iPhone. Instead, it’s still telling the world they’re the phone company, and we’re not, just as GM told us it was the car company, and we’re not.