Where is the Vision for Telecom?

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 2004

I’m worried about telecom. Service prices continue to drop with no bottom in sight, as bit transport becomes a commodity. Telephone companies everywhere are losing their landline business to wireless substitution, and both WiFi and voice on Internet (VoIP) threaten even further disruptions. As the profitability drains out of the industry, research is being starved at the bottom of the food chain. Where is this headed?

The theory is that a commodity business doesn’t support research, since there is no potential for added value. Can this be so in telecom? This question puzzles me, and as an engineer I worry about our own culpability. Where is our vision for what we could accomplish with technology? Do we have a dream, or are we at the mercy of cost-conscious business managers?

Through the past decades, we have always had some vision for the future of telecom. Usually it was wrong, as it happens, but it was always something positive to rally around. I also believe that even when a vision itself proves faulty, the constituent research often bears fruit in other directions. During the last quarter-century our visions have included the Dick Tracy wristwatch telephone, the videotelephone, home information systems, and video-on-demand. More recently, the catch line has been something like “anytime, anywhere.”

Well, we did all those things – differently than we had expected, of course, but generally much better than we had ever dared to dream. Today you can buy a wristwatch phone. Videotelephones are available too, although not many people seem to want them. And the concept of home information systems – accessing a centralized database through your home television set – was turned inside out with the development of the Worldwide Web and its vast universe of decentralized pages. The ubiquity of wireless has surely made “anytime, anywhere” an everyday reality.

Meanwhile, Moore’s Law progress in semiconductor technology has given us unbelievable processing capability. Optical technology and wireless breakthroughs have opened up unfathomable bandwidth. It’s all there tantalizingly in front of us. But what are we going to do with this capability? We need a vision to take to the business leaders and to the governments – a brief elevator speech: give us your blessing, and this is what we can do for you.

You’d think our credibility would be good. How much economic and social benefit has been reaped from the development of the Internet? Giant corporations with market caps in the hundred of billions of dollars have been born, and the everyday lives of people have been uplifted in a multitude of ways large and small. We created a wonderful economic and social engine, but now people yawn and ask what else we have in mind. So far the only answer seems to be more of the same, only faster -- maybe a lot cheaper, too, with all the going-out-of-business sales.

There are two schools of thought on vision. One approach is to feature the technical capabilities of the infrastructure, while the other is to feature its social potentials. In the former category a typical slogan would be a hundred megabits per second for a hundred million people. Or perhaps we say that the new network would be secure and ultra-reliable. It’s a “Field of Dreams” approach -- build it and they will come. We don’t know what society would do with those capabilities, but it will be something good.

The problem with this technical vision is that people in the street are skeptical that they need a hundred megabits. It’s not an instant seller. We say to them that we could deliver high quality video over the Internet. But we already have more television then we have time to watch, they think. When we offer up grid computing and video conferencing, we get blank stares. They’ve never heard of Internet II, or any of the other experimental high speed networks, and we’re at a loss to tell them what these projects have meant to the average citizen.

So perhaps we should focus on a social vision, such as telecommuting, telemedicine, tele-education, or tele-whatever. At least there would be an easy understanding of what benefits a new or improved infrastructure could bring. However, I can see two problems with this approach. First, these kinds of visions haven’t worked out in the past, why should they now? Second, the industry has always been wrong about what applications would be developed and embraced by the users. Why should we assume that we know now?

I’ve been torn between these alternative philosophies myself. I think the technical approach is the more honest one, but I worry that it doesn’t sell. I picture myself in an elevator with a government policy-maker. I’ve got two minutes. Telecom is in trouble, and we need support. What do I tell him? I need a vision. Any ideas?

Robert Lucky