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Can I whistle in my phone?

An acoustic coupler back in the sixties. This mechanical coupling device circumvented the regulation and started what today is the digital transformation. Image credit: New World Encyclopedia

Back in the sixties (of the last century) AT&T was protected by a regulation that dictated all devices connected to a telecom network infrastructure should be directly controlled by the Operator. No one else was allowed to connect to the network. So all phones were owned by AT&T. This situation was common in several other parts of the world, including Italy (but in Italy. as it is often the case, people tend to be more flexible and it was not unusual to see some devices, like answering machines, being used even though they were not owned by the Telecom Operator).

A popular story I heard several times (that does not make it true, although the fundamentals are true) tells that one entrepreneur called an AT&T big boss and asked him if it was allowed to whistle in the phone handset. Sure, replied the big boss, you can speak, sing, whistle…. You can do whatever you want. Then the entrepreneur asked if it was allowed to whistle in the handset using a whistling device since he was not good at whistling. Sure, replied the big boss again.

Apparently that is how that entrepreneur started to sell his invention, an acoustic adapter you can place your phone on to transmit data. For the first time an equipment that was not owned by the Operator became an integral part of the network letting people transfer data (at 300 baud, 0.3 kbits per second).

That was, most likely, the first over the top (OTT) service in telecommunications.

I was reminded of that as I was preparing for the first trial of a course on Digital Transformation (jointly produced by EIT Digital and IEEE FDC) that I will be giving in the coming days to some 70 public administrators officers in Trento. I wanted an example to show how a little disruption can lead to major disruptions. It took some 50 years but today Telecom Operators have basically lost all revenues from services in favour of a multitude of OTT. The value of the service market has decreased, although we have many more services today than we had in the past (most of them are provided for free…). Good, of course for customers, slightly less for Telcos…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.