The Five Nines.

Back when you could get any kind of phone you liked, as long as it was connected to a wall and was provided by Ma Bell, phone service was simple. It just always worked. The industry calls it “the 5 nines,” meaning your POTS (Plain Old Phone System) line is expected to work 99.999% of the time. Through power outages. Through storms. Through just about anything. And if it DID go down, you could be sure that it would be working again ASAP. Those boys didn’t fool around.

Fast-forward to today. When was the last time you saw a pay phone? Or a plain old handset phone, for that matter. With the breakup of Ma Bell, deregulation, and technical advances, it’s far more likely that even the guy holding the “Will Work for Food” sign on the street has some kind of cell phone. Don’t get me wrong. I love cell phones. I just wish they worked half as good as the POTS phones we used to have.

At my office, phone service is provided over a coax cable, courtesy of our local cable TV franchise. My phone is on the SprintPCS network. (“Net-work” – now THERE’S an oxymoron if ever I heard one.) Dropped calls, No signal, static, technical screwups – that’s the norm, not the exception to the rule. And we’re paying for it, too. Ever read your cell phone bill? They’ve made it impossible to tell why you pay each charge. When a cell phone provider says that their plan is “$39.95 a month,” you become accustomed to the lie. My phone bill SHOULD be under $100 a month, even counting all the taxes and hidden charges. I never go over my number of minutes. My bill has never been less than $150 per month. Sigh…

Not too long from now, nobody will remember the POTS phones, and the 5 nines will be nothing more than a historical footnote, a quaint concept of no-excuses service. That’s too bad. I love technology, and I love the convenience of a cell phone. I just wish mine worked nearly as well as that old black phenolic clunker with the rotary dial we had when I was a kid.

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