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Lagging in technology

In to the Wind

June 21, 2011
Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

“Hello, this is Johnnie, how may I help you,” Amit says in his most practiced American English. Through the wonderful world of technology, via something called voice over IP, Amit settles in to his workstation amid a cluster of cubicles at his job in Bangalore.

It is 6:30 pm in Bangalore. Amit, like so many other time shifting Indians has settled in for a day of customer service calls from America. There is ten hours and thirty minutes difference in time between Iowa and Bangalore. Amit’s wristwatch reads 6:30 pm; my clock on the wall reads 8 a.m.

“Hello Johnnie,” I reply. “I am having a problem with this new computer I am hoping you can help me solve.”

“Absolutely,” Johnnie says confidently! “Tell me the nature of your problem and I’ll see if I can help you sort it out.”

In short order Johnnie did indeed solve my problem.

My intention is not to badmouth Johnnie, or even the process put in place to address my needs as a customer. No, putting aside the slight problem I had understanding Johnnie through his heavy accent, he was a very capable, very knowledgeable technician. Although at first he was clearly following a script because of the methodical questions he asked, it wasn’t long before he set the script aside and got to the meat of my issue and solved it.

Our world has changed. This thing called the Internet has opened up a new world of possibilities for many.

Not only is Johnnie tech savvy, he is intelligent and resourceful. In Bangalore, Johnnie has a fine job; he in the envy of his friends and neighbors. Every afternoon he makes the trip in his energy efficient small car, to the large white building housing the company which provides outsourced customer support for American callers.

Why has this happened? Why is so much of our customer service being outsourced?

The answer is multi-part. Economically, Johnnie works for less pay than an American worker would make doing the same job. That part is a no brainer. Johnnie is technologically a very savvy individual. He has grown up in a country which has leapfrogged ahead of much of the rest of the world in technology, even America.

India lagged behind much of the western world for generations in technology. While America was building a copper infrastructure to carry phone calls and data between sites, India was not. As if overnight, everything changed.

India, as did some other formerly third world countries, skipped that facilities build and did not trench in miles and miles of copper into the ground. No, because there were no large monopolistic communications companies fighting change in order to preserve their monopolies, they skipped the twentieth century stuff and jumped right to the twenty-first century technology.

Fiber optics, fixed wireless, and other fast communications mechanisms are widely available in Bangalore and indeed many parts of India. Not only have they managed to industrialize, they have managed to jump ahead of many parts of the world in technology. Their schools teach it, their people embrace it, and their culture demands it.

Phone conversations do not have to be carried on what we call the PSTN, or public switched telephone network. The PSTN is mid twentieth century technology. Most domestic US telephone calls ARE carried on the PSTN. Through lobbying, scare tactics, as well as genuine concern about security, this old technology is still the norm in America. Large dinosaurs still hold on to this technology because it is a money maker, a HUGE money maker. Not so certain parts of the world, India and Bangalore especially.

Late in the last century, packet switching technology was developed which allowed phone conversations to be digitized and encapsulated into packets which could flow from point to point at high speed on the Internet. It has been called voice over IP, or VOIP.

Any American with a television is somewhat familiar with certain brands of voice over IP. You can Skype, you can use Vonage, and other packet switching companies are beginning to pop up all over America. In fact, even the cable TV companies are offering VOIP telephone service over the same cable that brings you television.

The dinosaurs are slowly losing their grip. Because they have moved slowly and resisted change, other companies are beginning to eat their lunch.

So by now you are probably wondering where I’m going with this column. Although I have only touched on one sector, communications, the same dynamics are stifling us as the technology seems to be racing away from America. We are no longer the leaders. We no longer lead the pack by embracing new technologies.

Monopolies and government bureaucracies are making the path to twenty-first century technology difficult. It is not only communications.

Why do European cars get much better mileage than American cars? Do the energy companies have such a hold on the American car makers that they can “buy” poor performance? Have our EPA standards and making cars safe for California caused us to lag in this technology too?

Why is America just now beginning to embrace alternative energy sources which are clean and renewable? Much of Europe, especially Scandinavia, has been using wind energy for years.

I am a firm believer that despite the rapacious monopolists, despite top heavy government bureaucracies, Americans by necessity will rise to the occasion and sort out some of the technology issues and race ahead. I plan on being a part, do you?

Until next time—

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the “Local Columns” button at the bottom of the page.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2011 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.

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