Party lines, telegrams, and the internet


Monchito Ibrahim

Baby boomers like me should consider themselves lucky for having had the opportunity to see and experience how communications have evolved in the last 50 years. It is fascinating to think of the communication technologies and facilities available to Filipinos during the early 70s and compare them to what exists today. Technology has had a profound impact on the way Filipinos communicate today. The advent of the internet and the widespread adoption of smart devices have led to a shift in the way we communicate, consume media, and access information. All of these are unimaginable back in those days.
I was born in the hinterlands of Mindanao and grew up seeing that the most common way of sending and receiving information was by word of mouth. If somebody wants to get information directly from a remote sender, the fastest way would be by telegrams and mailed letters. But unlike most places in Luzon and Visayas at that time, in Mindanao, not all towns had post and telegram offices. They were mostly situated in the capital towns, meaning that even telegrams would take days to get to the intended recipients.

The first time I got to use a telephone set was when I came over to Manila for college. I stayed in a relative’s house, and they had a telephone. You can not imagine how amazed I was the first time I got to talk to somebody on the telephone. Never mind that what my relative had was a party line connection which meant that the line was actually shared with somebody else. We had to wait for them to finish their call before we could get a dial tone to start a call.

During those days, you will be lucky to even have a party line connection. It was so inefficient, and it was not unusual to see the sharing parties getting into arguments with each other at times, accusing the other of being “telebabad.”

Aside from PLDT, which was the only private communications company operating at that time, there was the GTS network operated by the government. If you know somebody influential in government, the person may be able to get you a GTS telephone connection. It was not really the most efficient way for somebody using the GTS network to call a PLDT number. You had to dial 07 and will have to wait for a dial tone before you can dial the PLDT number.

Long-distance communication was usually done by letters hand-carried by acquaintances or mailed through the post offices. For urgent messages, it was done through telegrams which were paid according to the number of words in the message. To save on charges, it was not unusual for senders to use words like “psmi” which is the acronym for “please send money immediately.” Telegrams would usually get to the recipient in a matter of hours. In some places in Mindanao, however, it would take days. Letters would sometimes take weeks to reach the addressee even though post offices are a common government fixture in most towns.

At that time, only about one out of 100 Philippine households would be lucky to have a telephone connection. And most of them are based in Metro Manila. It would sometimes take you years from the time you submit your landline phone application to the time you finally get your connection made available. That is if you are lucky. That would also mean being made to pay for company shares which at that time, was mandatory. And those shares did not come cheap.

The 80s saw the exponential growth of innovations in communications technology. The early versions of what we now call the internet were already being tested. It also heralded the development of mobile phones. But the kind of technologies we were seeing during this decade was pretty much legacy systems still. The term “smart” was not yet embedded in these innovations.

The tipping point for both innovations happened during the 90s and there was no turning back since. For the internet, the development of browsers and search tools became the jumping boards for the quick adoption of the technology. For telephony, it was the development of the Global System for Mobile Communications or GSM platform and the ability to communicate via Short Message Service or SMS that made the mobile phone an indispensable tool in everyone’s pocket.

Fast forward to today, the internet, social media platforms, and those powerful smartphones have made it possible for people to communicate and connect with others from all over the world in a matter of seconds. This has led to the creation of virtual communities and the strengthening of existing ones. People can now share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences with others in real time, regardless of physical distance. These technologies have truly become integral parts of our lives. Can you imagine what the next 50 years would bring to us?

[email protected]

The author is the lead convenor of the Alliance for Technology Innovators for the Nation (ATIN), vice president of the Analytics Association of the Philippines, and vice president, UP System Information Technology Foundation.