Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

  • About the author

    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.
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“ISDN, Sir? Surely you’re mistaken?”

Posted by MikeCooper on October 3, 2008

Talk to anyone these days about ISDN and you’re likely to get a blank look – even more so if the person you’re talking to is from BT, it seems. It’s an interesting marker of the rate of progress that the technology they were trying so hard to sell us less than a decade ago has now been consigned largely to the annals of history. Long before “Home Highway” ever became mainstream, it was superseded by ADSL: broadband as we know it today.

Back in 1998, after the break-up of a relationship and upon finding myself largely homeless, I fell upon the kindness of two friends – both technology geeks – whom I lodged with for some months. They had ISDN in their house. They were also very proud of their “Structured Wiring”, which meant that all of our computers, once fitted with 10-Base-100 Ethernet cards, could be networked together and could share the (then-blisteringly fast) 128 kilobits per second connection. 

How things change… within two years my first ever broadband package from BT offered me 512kbps (half a megabit!) broadband; within a year it had doubled to a megabit per second; and the machine I’m now using is connected via ADSL2+ with a theoretical top limit of 24 megabits per second (I say theoretical, because I “only” get about 18…) and all via the same twisted copper pair whose only previous claim to “multimedia” was the occasional foray into Post Office Dial-a-Disc. In other words, my internet connection today is almost 150 times faster than what was on offer with ISDN. Not only that, but in the meantime we’ve all gone Wi-Fi mad and Structured Wiring is another anachronism – for home networking at least.

One of the few areas where ISDN took off outside of the business environment was with the voiceover industry. It caused a not-so-quiet revolution, in fact, and meant that the decades-old system of jobbing VOs hiking around the country for their regular sessions in local radio Com Prod departments largely came to an end. Suddenly it was possible to set up a studio in your wardrobe, stay at home, be available (literally) at the end of a phone line and do the jobs as they cropped up. More choice for producers, less spent on petrol for the voiceovers. And so it’s been for a good few years now, despite the threat from ADSL.

What ISDN provided, and still does, is a dependable, constant bitrate link between two points over a standard phone line, and that makes it perfect for audio. Granted, the bitrate of 128Kbps isn’t that great for music – any illegal MP3 downloader will tell you that – but when optimised for voice with some decent data compression, it’s pretty damned good. ADSL, on the other hand, is optimised for downloading web pages and short bursts of data from a server, and not for uploading constant bitrate audio in the other direction. So, despite the fact that it’s a comparatively old technology, this is one battle where ISDN wins.

The problem, at this point in time, is how long this advantage will last. Telecoms firms across the world are keen to retire ISDN at the earliest opportunity. They’ve got bigger fish to fry, like rolling out broadband at decent speeds to suburban and rural areas, and they’d rather be doing that than supporting what they see as an expensive and outdated legacy system that virtually no one wants.

Having laid the foundations for the argument, in my next post I’ll move on to what this means for someone like me, who doesn’t have ISDN, but is feeling the need to connect. There are some alternatives starting to surface, but picking your way through the minefield isn’t easy…


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