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Why telecom voltage is -48V, why not +48V

It has a very long history of legacy. It was started in second decade of 20th century. At that time all telephone connections were made with overhead wires mounted on poles. Switches were mostly manual and yes, at that point in time the telecom voltage was positive with negative grounded. As the number of connections soared, it made the whole dwelling places cluttered with wires and poles. The regulators/municipalities come into play and they said that all wires must be buried underground. At that point of time there was no plastic available. So, how to insulate the wires? What would be the conduit for the cables? The telecom people came-up with an ingenious solution. They used waxed paper for insulation of wires and used lead as sheath for the cable. Why? It is the only metal which you can bend with normal force without breaking it. And paper insulated Lead Sheathed cable was born. In my carrier life I have seen such cable coiled in a large cable drum. Now, come the problem. It was erosion of lead sheath and some one discovered that it is an accelerated electro-chemical galvanic corrosion due to positive potential of lead with respect to ground. So the telecom people reversed the polarity of power supply to save the lead from erosion. That legacy continued till date as telecom was developed and evolved with negative working potential from that point. All telecom services were wired at that time and wireless was still far away to come. The same principal is applied to long metal pipelines for protection against corrosion. It is called cathodic protection. Small power supply is used to keep the metal pipe potential negative with respect to ground filled with corrosive materials. At present point of time, do we need to continue with this negative polarity? Actually we dont care. Nothing will happen if we made telecom potential from negative to positive right now. We have enough protection against corrosion. We are just carrying the legacy without any harm.

Why 48V, why not 110V or 220V


When central battery switches arrive, they were 100% electro-mechanical. They are prone to fault and must be intervened for repair and live potentials are a threat to working personnel. Humans start feeling the current at potential difference of about 60V to 70V in dry condition and that is the safest limit not to get electrocuted. The figure 48 comes from LCM of 2, 3 & 4. Batteries were predominantly lead acid, meaning cell voltage of 2V. So 48V allows us to build battery of 1 cell, 3 cells, 4 cells, 6 cells or 8 cells. This was American standard. Siemens of Germany used 60V for their electromechanical F series (Basically Strowger model) switches which is LCM of 2, 3, 4 & 5. With the voltage of 48V and 60V, personnel can work on live equipments without switching off any thing. Later Bells development of Electronic Switching System (ESS series cross bar switch, ESS4 was the first total electronic switch) makes the world settled to -48V.