When the flushing lavatory was invented (bear with me, there is a point to this), it had a simple tap, operated by a handle. When the incumbent lifted the handle, the loo flushed. When the handle was replaced, the cascade ceased. Unfortunately, many householders used to wedge the handle up with a stick, causing the smallest room to be always gurgling with the sound of rushing water. Whether this was because they were hypersensitive to hygiene, or because they were used to peeing into streams, is not recorded.
Rivers and reservoirs were soon running low so some bright spark invented the cistern, which disgorged a carefully measured 2.4 gallons at every tug of the chain and waited until the flusher was safely out of range before filling up again. As a means of water conservation this was effective, but crude. Basically, you could use as much as you liked without paying extra, but only if you waited for the cistern to fill up.
Gas and electricity suppliers adopted the more sophisticated method - now also being introduced by water companies - of metering the supply, so that people were encouraged to economise and penalised for profligacy. There remained only a small standing charge to defray the infrastructure costs. Some electricity companies are even phasing this out in favour of a purely pay as you use tariff.
Telephone companies began with the same model, which in the UK still persists. Because a phone call involves no physical product beyond a tiny amount of electricity (unlike, say, water and gas), infrastructure accounts for most of the running costs of the network. This is why call tariffs are cheap and standing charges relatively high, despite the complaints of low users, who object to forking out over #30 a quarter for the privilege of being called by double-glazing salesmen.
Now, however, telcos are being pestered to follow the lead of mobile operators and US telcos, and provide free local calls, or even free calls within a wider radius. Of course, these calls will not be free at all.
They will be paid for via higher standing charges - whether the customer uses them or not.
This hardly sounds a very equitable arrangement, especially in New, Cool, 90s Britain, where we are being encouraged to kiss welfare and handouts goodbye and stand on our own two pins. Worse, they will encourage us to do the telephonic equivalent of propping up the handle on the loo - staying permanently logged on to the internet or to our head office network, talking for hours about nothing to people whom we could perfectly well go and meet face-to-face, and so on.
The effect on network capacity and internet traffic can be imagined.
Already, parts of the Net slow to a crawl when US subscribers are on free local calls. Introduce free calls here, and the same result will ensue.
So let's not be too hasty to pull the chain on our current tariff system.
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