The wireless revolution's forgotten victim: The phone itself

Wireless devices are making landlines less reliable, but the new voice technologies aren't ready for prime time either

The complaints kept increasing: Whose phone is cracking or buzzing? In teleconference after teleconference, various colleagues and I would waste time trying to figure out whose phone was buzzing, crackling, fading out, and contributing to any number of distractions. "But I'm using a landline" was a common reply when someone was accused of being the problem. I certainly said that many times, yet in some cases I was the culprit.

Although more and more teleconferences are conducted with an option to use WebEx, GoToMeeting, or similar VoIP services, their audio quality leaves something to be desired, and they work poorly on the Mac. Also, dealing with the bulky USB headsets and the audio settings to ensure the audio doesn't go through the computer's microphone and speakers in an office environment -- not automatically handled in all cases -- was too much of a pain for most participants.

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The use of Bluetooth headsets on computers and tablets introduced its own issues, such as weak mic pickup and even buzzing. Finally, most people's landlines were cordless telephones connected to a landline, with either a wired or Bluetooth lightweight headset attached, so we could be online while talking. They're all vectors for interference from the ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks we swim in these days.

I had this issue years ago when Wi-Fi networks became popular. I had started with an 800MHz cordless system, but its signal quality was poor, so I switched to a 2.4GHz system. But after a few years, I couldn't escape interference with the growing number of 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks and radios in my environment. Changing Wi-Fi channels on my router sometimes helped, but that didn't address the increasing number of neighbors' routers crowding the spectrum, nor all the Wi-Fi devices that steadily crept in: a couple of computers, a couple of smartphones, and on the other side of the house the TiVo and Blu-ray player, not to mention those of neighbors.

So I switched to a 5.8GHz cordless phone, to get my phone far away from the 2.4GHz spectrum. That worked for a few years, but over the last two years the interference crept in again, and it grew increasingly worse. Why? Most of my wireless devices -- as well as my neighbors' -- are running 802.11n on the 5GHz spectrum, which is faster and has greater reach. Unfortunately, that's too close to my cordless phone's 5.8GHz spectrum.

Again, I was a source of teleconference problems. I upgraded my network lines to Cat6 from Cat5 to get the additional shielding in Cat6, and that helped a little (it's not just wireless devices that cause signal interference). But it wasn't enough.

Over the last few months, my boss had complained repeatedly about the interference, which I was sure was not my fault ("I'm on a landline!"). After asking me to abandon a few teleconferences due to the interference, I had to think maybe I was at least part of the problem. A colleague also quietly told me how the call quality was so much better after I hung up. Damn!

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