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Telecommunications is the assisted transmission over a distance for the purpose of communication. In earlier times, this may have involved the use of smoke signals, drums, semaphore, flags or heliograph. In modern times, telecommunication typically involves the use of electronic devices such as the telephone, television, radio or computer. Early inventors in the field of telecommunication include Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo Marconi and John Logie Baird. Telecommunication is an important part of the world economy and the telecommunication industry's revenue was estimated to be 1.2 trillion in 2006.

Early telecommunications

In the Middle Ages, chains of beacons were commonly used on hilltops as a means of relaying a signal. Beacon chains suffered the drawback that they could only pass a single bit of information, so the meaning of the message such as "the enemy has been sighted" had to be agreed upon in advance. One notable instance of their use was during the Spanish Armada, when a beacon chain relayed a signal from Plymouth to London.

In 1792, Claude Chappe, a French engineer, built the first fixed visual telegraphy system (or semaphore line) between Lille and Paris. However semaphore suffered from the need for skilled operators and expensive towers at intervals of ten to thirty kilometres (six to nineteen miles). As a result of competition from the electrical telegraph, the last commercial line was abandoned in 1880.

Telegraph and telephone

The first commercial electrical telegraph was constructed by Sir Charles Wheatstone and Sir William Fothergill Cooke and opened on 9 April 1839. Both Wheatstone and Cooke viewed their device as "an improvement to the [existing] electromagnetic telegraph" not as a new device.

Radio and television

In 1832, James Lindsay gave a classroom demonstration of wireless telegraphy to his students. On 25 March 1925, John Logie Baird was able to demonstrate the transmission of moving pictures at the London department store Selfridges. Baird's device relied upon the Nipkow disk and thus became known as the mechanical television.

Computer networks and the Internet

On 11 September 1940, George Stibitz was able to transmit problems using teletype to his Complex Number Calculator in New York and receive the computed results back at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. This configuration of a centralized computer or mainframe with remote dumb terminals remained popular throughout the 1950s. However, it was not until the 1960s that researchers started to investigate packet switching — a technology that would allow chunks of data to be sent to different computers without first passing through a centralized mainframe. A four-node network emerged on 5 December 1969; this network would become ARPANET, which by 1981 would consist of 213 nodes.

Key concepts

A number of key concepts reoccur throughout the literature on modern telecommunication systems. Some of these concepts are listed below.

Basic elements

A basic telecommunication system consists of three elements:

  • a transmitter that takes information and converts it to a signal;
  • a transmission medium that carries the signal; and,
  • a receiver that receives the signal and converts it back into usable information.

For example, in a radio broadcast the broadcast tower is the transmitter, free space is the transmission medium and the radio is the receiver. Often telecommunication systems are two-way with a single device acting as both a transmitter and receiver or transceiver. For example, a mobile phone is a transceiver.

Analogue or digital

Signals can be either analogue or digital. In an analogue signal, the signal is varied continuously with respect to the information. In a digital signal, the information is encoded as a set of discrete values (for example ones and zeros). During transmission the information contained in analogue signals will be degraded by noise. Conversely, unless the noise exceeds a certain threshold, the information contained in digital signals will remain intact. Noise resistance represents a key advantage of digital signals over analogue signals.


A network is a collection of transmitters, receivers and transceivers that communicate with each other. Digital networks consist of one or more routers that work together to transmit information to the correct user. An analogue network consists of one or more switches that establish a connection between two or more users. For both types of network, repeaters may be necessary to amplify or recreate the signal when it is being transmitted over long distances. This is to combat attenuation that can render the signal indistinguishable from noise.


A channel is a division in a transmission medium so that it can be used to send multiple streams of information. For example, a radio station may broadcast at 96.1 MHz while another radio station may broadcast at 94.5 MHz. In this case, the medium has been divided by frequency and each channel has received a separate frequency to broadcast on. Alternatively, one could allocate each channel a recurring segment of time over which to broadcast—this is known as time-division multiplexing and is sometimes used in digital communication.


The shaping of a signal to convey information is known as modulation. Modulation can be used to represent a digital message as an analogue waveform. This is known as keying and several keying techniques exist (these include phase-shift keying, frequency-shift keying and amplitude-shift keying). Bluetooth, for example, uses phase-shift keying to exchange information between devices.

Society and telecommunication

Telecommunication has a significant social, cultural and economic impact on modern society. In 2006, estimates placed the telecommunication industry's revenue at 1.2 trillion or just under 3% of the gross world product (official exchange rate).


On the microeconomic scale, companies have used telecommunication to help build global empires. This is self-evident in the case of online retailer at Amazon but, according to academic Edward Lenert, even the conventional retailer Wal-Mart has benefited from better telecommunication infrastructure compared to its competitors. In cities throughout the world, home owners use their telephones to organize many home services ranging from pizza deliveries to electricians.

Social impact

Telecommunication is playing an increasingly important role in social relationships. In recent years, the popularity of social networking sites has increased dramatically. These sites allow users to communicate with each other as well as post photographs, events and profiles for others to see. The profiles can list a person's age, interests, sexuality and relationship status. In this way, these sites can play important role in everything from organising social engagements to courtship.

Other impacts

In cultural terms, telecommunication has increased the public's ability to access to music and film. With television, people can watch films they have not seen before in their own home without having to travel to the video store or cinema. With radio and the internet, people can listen to music they have not heard before without having to travel to the music store.

Modern operation

In an analogue telephone network, the caller is connected to the person he wants to talk to by switches at various telephone exchanges. The switches form an electrical connection between the two users and the setting of these switches is determined electronically when the caller dials the number. Once the connection is made, the caller's voice is transformed to an electrical signal using a small microphone in the caller's handset. This electrical signal is then sent through the network to the user at the other end where it is transformed back into sound by a small speaker in that person's handset. There is a separate electrical connection that works in reverse, allowing the users to converse

Radio and television

In a broadcast system, a central high-powered broadcast tower transmits a high-frequency electromagnetic wave to numerous low-powered receivers. The high-frequency wave sent by the tower is modulated with a signal containing visual or audio information. The antenna of the receiver is then tuned so as to pick up the high-frequency wave and a demodulator is used to retrieve the signal containing the visual or audio information. The broadcast signal can be either analogue (signal is varied continuously with respect to the information) or digital (information is encoded as a set of discrete values).

The Internet

The Internet is a worldwide network of computers and computer networks that can communicate with each other using the Internet Protocol. Any computer on the Internet has a unique IP address that can be used by other computers to route information to it. Hence, any computer on the Internet can send a message to any other computer using its IP address. These messages carry with them the originating computer's IP address allowing for two-way communication. In this way, the Internet can be seen as an exchange of messages between computers.

Local area networks

Despite the growth of the Internet, the characteristics of local area networks (computer networks that run at most a few kilometres) remain distinct. This is because networks on this scale do not require all the features associated with larger networks and are often more cost-effective and efficient without them.

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