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The Death of Distance

Telecommunications, by definition, consist of systems that facilitate an exchange of meaning over distances. Countless studies into the various media that fall under the broad blanket of the telecommunication industry have reported the fact that time and space may now be transcended successfully, allowing for interpersonal socialisation, business meetings, information exchange and more to be conducted by parties who exist in geographically disperse locales. When the aspect of media portability is introduced into the equation, space plays even less of a role, as telecommunications move towards a user-centred, space-obliterating ideal.

During the past two decades, the telecommunication industry has been rocked furiously in the face of technological advancement, deregulation and increased competition. For consumers, the shake-up has brought an influx of widespread benefits, contrasted with a few drawbacks. While members of remote regions and developing countries have, since the diffusion of the first landline telephones, been limited to communal, if any, access to a universal dialtone service, competition-driven price decreases and a diffusing mobile telephony service promises increased personal access to such residents. (Gilder, Forbes ASAP, June 5, 1995) Certainly, this digital mobile telephony does suffer from coverage limitations (in terms of cell size) that continue to restrict regional access, but developments such as Motorola's Iridium network and the Bill Gates-funded Teledesic broadband satellite system are working to facilitate access from any point on the globe. (Cairncross, The Economist online, 1997)

Similar reductions in the cost of long-distance telecommunications are being driven by an ever-increasing bandwidth spectrum, Internet-based telephone and video-conferencing applications, a liberalisation of traditional legislation and regulation and call-back services that avoid the high costs demanded by monopolistic service providers. (Gilder, Forbes ASAP, 1995) Reduced costs foster greater international exchange, whether related to business operation or the fulfillment of social needs. This eliminates many of the effects of distance.

Developments in the technology used to mediate long-distance exchanges have also, during the past two decades, significantly altered the quality of information that can be exchanged. The shift from a transportation of analog signals through twisted pair copper lines to the employment of superior, and cheaper, fibre optic cabling, cellular radio, satellite relay systems and digital packet switching that allows for the carriage of potentially infinite channels of data through the ether and fibre has obliterated some of the bandwidth restrictions that bound telecommunications from achieving its maximum potential. (Negroponte, Being Digital, 1995 & Gilder, Forbes ASAP, 1995). This has opened the industry up for a limitless range of applications that deny the limitations of distance. The Web, video-conferencing, IRC and interactive multimedia content is readily transferable via existing structures, enabling students, company employees and citizens to operate from disparate locations reasonably effectively. Bond University's Stephen Gregory supported this assumption with his pioneering Res Rocket program, which allowed musicians to 'jam' together, or to record a song in real-time over the Internet.

Mobile telephony, which reached critical mass in 1994 and which, in the face of Japan's affordable and practical PHS device and the recent integration of WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) technology that promises online connection for mobile phones and PDAs, in conjunction with a decrease in mobile access charges, has already revolutionised the way members of developed countries communicate. (Cairncross, The Economist, 1995) Mobility enables companies to move faster, and more remotely. It provides increasingly ready access to individuals. More interestingly, perhaps, it promises, in the coming years, to provide members of developing nations with universal and individual access to the rest of the world, and to the Internet, siphoning in a gradual closure of the information gap (at least, that's the optimistic outlook). (Cairncross, The Economist, 1997) As Cairncross noted in The Economist's Telecommunications Survey, "Where once people had to go to a particular place...to communicate, now communications come to them..." This infers that the focus presently is on the diffusion of a system granting Universal Personal Telecommunications (UPT) to the masses, effectively bringing everyone within reach.

Now, while a reliance on telecommunication technology does pose unavoidable philosophical and social implications alluding to metaphorical 'distances' - a possible increase in the information gap, a lack of sufficient face-to-face interaction and the relative impossibility of 'escaping' from work - increases in technology, accessibility and social interactivity presented by the media are moving to alleviate some of this associated discomfort. By integrating wireless telephony with efficient digital compression and packet switching, computer networks increasingly link individual people, as opposed to static terminals. While the fidelity of telecommunications media may never reach that of face-to-face interaction, there is no doubt that the notion of a declining distance is supported.

Written by Joshua Smith. © 1998

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