Steal My Copper, Please

Copper is neat stuff. It’s malleable, ductile, resists corrosion, transfers heat readily, and can be easily soldered. In various forms it is incredibly useful. There are around 50 pounds of copper in an automobile, and 11,000 pounds in a diesel locomotive, for example. One of the less useful forms that copper takes is when it is extruded into long, thin wires, coated in insulating material, and strung between wooden poles to carry analog telephone signals. We still have one pair of these wires coming into our home, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

Our local carrier is Embarq, or whatever they are calling themselves these days (DinoComm? DustyLink?). For $30 a month they offer us a hard-wired circuit-switched connection to any local phone number I care to call. That is, assuming I remember the number, and don’t mind dialing it in manually. Thirty bucks a month. If I want to call any of the neighboring area codes, have voice mail, call forwarding, caller ID, etc., all of that is extra. We recently dropped all that stuff on our one remaining line. Before that it was $60/month.

Sixty bucks! That’s nearly half my Comcast bill, for a single lousy voice circuit. Really? I’m still paying these guys why? I can’t figure it out. We don’t even use the line anymore. Nobody uses the line anymore except a couple of marketing bots that hang up as soon as I answer (even the guys who write marketing bots don’t give a crap about telephones anymore). We use email, SMS texting, cell phones, and Skype for virtually all our communications needs. Skype is $29/year and I can call anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, with good quality, with one-click dialing, with video, and I can exchange text messages and files at the same time.

We came very close to cutting the cord completely a few months ago, and just couldn’t quite get there. It’s easy to generate doubt. What about 911? It doesn’t work on Skype but we all have cel phones and it does work on them. What about when the power is out and the computers are down? Well, the phone on the copper line is wireless and needs power too… and we have cel phones. All of the real questions have answers. Still, we didn’t get rid of it, and we’re still donating $30 every month so that Embarq can afford to scrub the rust off their trucks. It must be some sort of cultural nostalgia, or the communications infrastructure equivalent of apron strings.

According to the FCC (Table 2.2 Statistics of Communications Common Carriers) in 2006 there were 2.7 billion kilometers of metallic (mostly copper) wire in the physical plant of the country’s licensed local telephone carriers. I did a double take when I saw that number, and had to think about it a bit before I realized that this stat counts every conductor. If you look at sheathed metallic cable, most of which will have multiple conductors, the figure is 6.1 million kilometers. I googled around a bit on some stats for how much copper that represents, and calculated that it’s in the category of “metric ass ton.” If you want to get more specific, have fun with it. However you look at it, there’s a lot of metal hanging from wooden poles so that forgotten autodialers sitting in some dusty office closet can call me and hang up as soon as I answer.

Copper today is selling for $3.30 or so on the New York Exchanges. Next week in this space: the Post Office.

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