Government Technology
By Wayne Hanson: What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?

Talk to the Doohickey

April 30, 2013 By

My 92-year-old mother was unhappy that she couldn't see and talk to her kids and grandchildren scattered around the country. So my tech-savvy daughter bought her an iPad, hooked up a Wi-Fi router to her cable service and showed her how to use it. Mom was fascinated, but some of the instructions stuck and some didn't.

Now, sometimes when I'm working, Skype will pop up on my screen, and there's Mom on video, apologizing for disturbing me at work, saying "I just pressed this doohickey."

Photo: Shutterstock

That iPad is a long way from the hand-cranked phone hanging on the wall of our house in 1950. We lived in a logging camp and when Mom cranked the handle, somebody in the timekeeper's shack answered and connected her to another camp resident, or the outside world. The outside world was anything futher than three miles away and long distance charges came out of Dad's paycheck. Later on, we moved to town and got a black rotary dial telephone on a party line. You could call the operator and reach relatives in Portland if you didn't mind the neighbors listening in.

One thing is certain, telephones have evolved. Back in 2007, Government Technology invited New York Times technology columnist David Pogue to speak in Sacramento, and he basically said that in the future, voice over Internet (VoIP) telephony -- such as Skype -- would change the way phone calls would be made.

That same year, Bill Gates said  that applying the magic of software to phone calls would transform communications and lead to the death of the Public Branch Exchange or PBX. "Once you get software in the mix," he said in a Network World article, "the capabilities go way beyond what anybody thinks of today when they think of phone calls."

Now, nearly everyone has a smart phone. Land lines and pay phones are disappearing, and nearly every kind of communication can run in one pipe -- the Internet -- or wirelessly over a cellular network. In fact voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) has evolved with lots of embedded capabilities. And those digital capabilities are compatible with cell phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers.

As cities and counties replace old PBX switches and begin to upgrade their systems, a huge array of options await that incorporate voice, video, text, instant messaging, email, social networking, mobility, Web browsing and more. We talked to five different jurisdictions about what options they chose and why, and what results they obtained. The story -- about "unified communications" as the subject is now called -- will appear in the June issue of Government Technology.

Photo: Shutterstock

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Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?