What Is Telecommunications Equipment?

Jessica Bosari

Telecommunications equipment encompasses many different types of telecommunications, including telephones, computers, and radios. All of these types of telecommunications networks transmit signals by connecting to the Internet. Telecommunications equipment relies on software to function and therefore depends on technicians who understand the hardware and software components of the technology.

A webcam for use with VoIP.
A webcam for use with VoIP.

Switching hubs and routers are used to transmit, process, amplify, and direct packets of information to their destinations. Installers and repairers set up those switches and routers, along with cables and other equipment, at central offices. This type of equipment uses fiber optics to relay information, resulting in a greater capacity and clearer signals than were previously possible in copper lines. Newer packet switching telecommunications equipment technology has also increased the transmission capacity of each line.

Wireless routers are a type of telecommunications equipment.
Wireless routers are a type of telecommunications equipment.

As the technology advances, the reliability of switches and routers increases. Telecommunications equipment has become so easy to maintain that some systems use self-monitoring switches to alert central offices when there is a malfunction. Some switches even help repairers diagnose and correct malfunctions from a remote location.

Phones with conference calling features are used in business.
Phones with conference calling features are used in business.

Other technological advances have taken place in the cable television industry. Cable technology is rapidly becoming more like telecommunications networks. Cable television companies use centralized locations, much like the central offices in the telecommunications sector to relay and route signals. Cable television is becoming an interactive medium, allowing customers to request information and receive real-time responses, much like the Internet or automated telephone systems.

Taxis typically use radios to communicate with a dispatcher.
Taxis typically use radios to communicate with a dispatcher.

Private branch exchange (PBX) switchboards are a type of telecommunications equipment used by businesses to relay incoming, outgoing, and interoffice telephone calls at one location or organization. Modern PBX switchboards rely on software like other types of telecommunications equipment and run on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). In private homes, the most common types of telecommunications equipment are telephones, VoIP and Internet.

Electronic and optical switches route telephone calls and packets of data to their destinations, relaying signals from radios in taxis, airplanes, boats, and emergency vehicles. This can include cellular communications including transmission towers or other two-way systems. Radio equipment is often self-monitoring, alerting mechanics about potential malfunctions.

A Quick History of Routers

As any telecommunications equipment supplier will tell you, routers were a huge advancement in communications tech. The history of their development begins in the late 1960s, with ARPA playing a major part in their creation. ARPA, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency, was created in the late 1950s after the former Soviet Union launched its Sputnik 1 satellite. Later renamed DARPA, the agency’s mission was to research technology with an eye on its potential use in military applications.

The First Routers

ARPANET was the agency’s wide area network that linked computers at universities and research centers across the United States. This network started with two nodes in 1969 established between UCLA and Stanford Research Institute. The first router, the Interface Message Protocol, was created that same year to connect computers with ARPANET. The IMP was produced by Raytheon BBN Technologies, a research and development company based in Massachusetts.

The Advent of TCP/IP

A programmer at BBN, Ginny Strazisar, helped advance router technology even more. During the mid-1970s, Strazisar wrote the first gateway software for TCP/IP protocols. At the time, she was working with an ARPANET project involving packet-switching wireless communications. From a mobile telecommunications hub affectionally nicknamed “the bread truck,” data packets were sent across packet radio, satellite, and ARPANET networks. After Strazisar’s successful 1977 experiment, BBN went into the business of selling routers using Strazisar’s TCP/IP protocol.

The Development of Hubs and Switches

When we’re considering the development of computer networking, switches and hubs have played an important role. A hub is a piece of equipment with several input and output ports allowing many Ethernet devices to connect. When linked up to a hub, these devices collectively behave as one network segment rather than multiple segments. Hubs were simple devices—besides being able to detect network collisions, they didn’t do much else beyond connecting equipment.

The first hubs only permitted speeds of 10 Mbps, but dual-sped versions followed which could support both 10 Mbps and 1000 Mbps data speeds. The most common versions were four- and five-port hubs, but some could accommodate up to 16 ports. Back in the day, hubs could be daisy-chained together to allow the connection of more devices.

Starting in the early 2000s, switches began to slowly replace hubs. After the network switch was invented, hubs more or less became obsolete. The first multiport switch was developed in 1989 by Kalpana, a telecommunications equipment supplier and manufacturer operating out of Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s. This invention, the seven-port EtherSwitch, revolutionized how computer networks were created and managed. Cisco Systems acquired Kalpana in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, switches supplanted hubs as the networking devices of choice.

PBX Switchboards

We take basic innovations like the PBX switchboard for granted, but it’s hard to overstate its importance in modern telecommunications. Before automated switching existed, PBXs required human operation. Switchboard operators manually connected circuits to complete calls — and this meant plugging cables into two separate jacks to link callers to their desired parties.

As phone service expanded across the United States, the need for automated switching became clear. Semiconductors would pave the way, allowing the speed and efficiency needed for complete electronic automation. After the first PBXs with semiconductors were introduced in 1972, they slowly replaced human-operated systems. Costs also went down, allowing more widespread access and helping turn telephony into the essential service that it is today.

The Merge of IP and PBX Systems

The growth of internet access led to the next stages in PBX technological development. Government and higher learning institutions were connected via Ethernet by the mid-1990s, but home and most business users had to use dial-up moderns to use email, FTP, the World Wide Web, and other services. That meant transferring data over telephone lines.

With the amazing potential that IP technology offered, it’s no surprise that it would impact the future development of telephony. Yet the move towards Voice over IP would start in 1938 when Bells Labs’ Homer Dudley developed the first electronic voice synthesizer.

The vocoder, as it came to be known, found its primary use in popular music. But it led the way to critical innovations, such as voice data packet transmission and wideband audio codecs. Next came the IP PBX, created in 1999 by programmer Mark Spencer. Asterisk, his Linux-based application, proved that IP PBX was possible. After Skype and Vonage entered the market, VoIP took off. It’s steadily grown over the last 20 years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when more workers began to telecommute.

Cell phones require transmission towers.
Cell phones require transmission towers.

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Discussion Comments

KoiwiGal

@clintflint - I hate to say it, but I suspect that if they did start using haptic technology it would be co-opted by the porn industry pretty quickly. They always seem to be at the forefront of telecommunications technology.

clintflint

@pastanaga - Well, I think the next big innovation is probably going to be flexible screens. Once they get the technology right for that, you're going to be able to do all kinds of things with them that aren't possible now.

I also think that haptic technology is going to be a big thing at some point in the business of telecommunications. I know there are already some gadgets that will respond to touch and transmit it, but I can imagine those becoming more sophisticated.

I don't think it will ever be the same as having a person right in front of you, but I do believe there will come a time when you will be able to hug your friend through a computer screen.

pastanaga

It's really amazing how far technology has come even within a single lifetime. There are teenagers alive today who don't remember what it's like to be without a cell phone. I still remember being reluctant to get one because once they were supposed to cause brain damage if you used them too often (which turned out to be just an urban legend). Now I can't imagine being without one and I don't have a landline because it just seems like an unnecessary expense.

But watching shows like Downton Abbey, they have characters who think of a telephone as some kind of magical device and refuse to use it.

It makes me wonder what kind of technology we'll have making us nervous in the next hundred years.

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