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MEMORY LANE: Who’s calling?

Sun, 05/31/2009 - 8:25pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technologywriter, Denver, Colo.

In 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was shot,the first patent
relating to a telephone Caller ID system was issued.

This is a tough one for young peopleto fathom, but there was a time when you didn’t know who was calling on the telephone until you lifted the receiver and said, “Hello?” Phones rang Stewart Schleyand people answered, and only then was revealed the identity of the caller – friend, spouse, seller of encyclopedias or carpet-cleaning services.

That experience seems a long way off from today’s telephone world, where digital photographs, custom ringtones and caller identities announce themselves before users ever deign to take the call. But mass adoption of Caller ID services is a relatively recent phenomenon, at least compared with the long pathway the technology took to get there.

In 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released, the first patent relating to a telephone Caller ID system was issued. A Greek communications engineer, Theodore George Paraskevakos, had filed for a patent describing a device that would decode and display the identity of calling telephones within a receiving device. The Greek Patent Office issued patent 40176 in May 1968. It was the first of 20 patents Paraskevakos would receive from Greece, the U.S. and several other nations over the next seven years.

Yet by the mid-1970s, “Caller ID” systems remained obscure. A small, independent phone company in Leesburg, Ala., tried out Paraskevakos’ boxy decoder with good success, but the technology remained all but invisible to mainstream telephone users. One interested observer who did take note was the Japanese inventor Kazuo Hashimoto, who had developed one of the first commercially popular phone answering machines. Hashimoto in 1976 filed for a patent on a prototype device that would display caller information. Although not the first to explore Caller ID technology, Hashimoto would have sweeping influence over the category. The early patents he received were ultimately upheld by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office after Hashimoto charged that AT&T had infringed them. (AT&T agreed to settle the case, paying an undisclosed amount of royalties to Hashimoto.)

Even so, it would take years after Hashimoto’s first patent filing before a major U.S. phone company would stage a market test of Caller ID technology. In 1984, in Harrisburg, Penn., Bell Atlantic tested an approach that piggybacked on the automatic number identification system used for internal call-billing purposes to distribute Caller ID information. Later that year, BellSouth followed with a similar test in Orlando, adopting the brand name “Caller ID.” Both companies seemed convinced that Caller ID not only would work reliably, but that consumers would be willing to pay a monthly surcharge for a service that promised to solve a pesky telephone problem: getting stuck on a call people would have preferred not to take.

BellSouth became the first company to deploy Caller ID commercially, starting in Memphis and rolling the service out across its entire nine-state territory by 1992.

Bell Atlantic and U S West followed with deployments in the late 1980s. Like BellSouth, they made use of the telephone industry’s SS7 standard for handling call data to transmit Caller ID information.

Caller ID survived early challenges and complaints from privacy advocates (and from telemarketing companies proclaiming to be privacy advocates), who argued that divulging a caller’s identity unmasked the caller’s presumption of anonymity. A compromise of sorts was established in 1994, when the FCC adopted standards requiring that a caller’s number be routed through a switched network and that telephone companies had to offer free call blocking on a per-call basis.

Caller ID began to gain strong consumer traction in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Penetration shot from 16 percent of phone users to 40 percent from 1995 through 1999, the research firm Arbitron found. People from all strata, economically and demographically, were embracing Caller ID – a trend Arbitron researchers chalked up to ease of use, low costs and an ability to enhance a familiar home appliance.

Those same traits appear to be working in favor of the latest wrinkle to touch Caller ID: sending caller information to the television set. Caller ID to the TV applications are fast becoming requisites of the interconnected telecommunications era, with major cable companies, telco video providers and satellite TV broadcasters offering the novel feature.

It’s a convergence play that couldn’t have been imagined when inventors first began thinking up ideas for caller-identification systems 40 years ago. But because it takes a good idea and makes it incrementally better, chances are they’d agree: It’s got a good ring to it.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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