Paul Brislen: let’s talk copper
There seems to be some confusion about copper lines and how they work, not to mention why we are moving away from them for newer technology, so I thought I was going to try to explain everything. .
Copper lines have been the mainstay of the telecommunications world for almost 200 years. Beginning in the mid-1800s with the telegraph, copper lines have been strung all over the world to provide users with binary information ever since.
These first dots and dashes are identical to today’s broadband connections in all but one respect: speed. Networks today send billions of dots and dashes per second, which copper lines could never do.
Sending electrical pulses up and down on a copper line heats the metal and cools it repeatedly, causing degeneration over time. The maintenance of such a network is expensive because it involves digging up underground lines and constantly replacing them with new lines. The more lines are used, the faster they fail.
On top of that, the further away your phone was from the exchange, the poorer the signal. This may be okay for voice calls, but once you start trying to use them for internet access, the quality of the line becomes crucial. Too many users have been told they are too far from the nearest exchange to get an Internet connection, and with the introduction of personal computers this has become a major problem.
The copper lines had one thing going for them – the power to make the call was sent from the central office down the line. Homeowners and businesses weren’t supposed to plug their landlines into a power source at their end – it was done for them. This gave users great peace of mind, especially when they needed to call emergency services. You may pick up the handset and be almost guaranteed to hear a dial tone.
This all ended about 15 years ago when the industry introduced roadside cabinets to improve broadband connection for customers by reducing the distance to every home. Since then, every cabinet and switchboard has included back-up batteries to power the lines, which means that in the event of an interruption in the power supply (an earthquake, for example), even fixed line users will have some hours of battery life before the phone goes silent.
Today, there are new technologies that are rapidly replacing copper lines, providing improved capacity and reduced maintenance overhead.
This is good, because today’s user has much higher expectations than ever before about what they do with their connections.
If you want to talk to someone halfway around the world you don’t have to bite the bullet and hope the paid call won’t be too heavy – you use Zoom and you can see them on video from Full HD quality while chatting. Or you can play an online game with them, or you can both watch TV together, or do business, play music, do your banking, shop, learn, teach – the options are endless .
All of these things require bandwidth. They require increased capacity and as they become more of a staple than a good to have it is important that we have a network that meets demand.
Network deployment in New Zealand continues at a rapid pace and we are connecting many more places to much better infrastructure than ever before. Our experience during COVID was a glimpse of the future: we can work remotely, we can lock the doors but continue to be connected, and that’s important to our economy, but just as important to our community and our society.
The next few years will see New Zealand’s digital economy take the lead in terms of value, but also in terms of jobs and opportunities, especially in regional areas that have struggled in the past due to their isolation – something that good communication networks can help overcome. If we want New Zealand to take its place on the world stage, we must have the network to support it. Fortunately, work is already well advanced on this front.
Auckland man Paul Brislen is the managing director of the New Zealand Telecommunications Forum.