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Put the Horse before the Cart: Let Technologies Drive Polices.

Perhaps every major technological breakthrough carries with it the seeds of destruction of the environment that made it possible. If so, then this was never more true than of the former Bell System, which has been reaping the whirlwind seeded by the transistor discovery at the former Bell Telephone Laboratories just before Christmas in 1947. That whirlwind, the Information Age, is transforming the whole of the telecommunications landscape.

Since that fateful day in 1947, progress in information technology--or telematics, as some call it--has been dramatic. The transistor led to the integrated circuit and microelectronics, which have revolutionized the processing and switching of information signals. Then came optics, or photonics, the laser and the optical fiber, revolutionizing the transmission of these signals. And increasingly, the operation of sophisticated microelectronic and photonic systems is orchestrated by that all-pervasive agency, software, the language of "informatics."

Microelectronics, photonics and informatics are the three primary technological forces responsible for wreaking such change on the technological landscape and affecting virtually all aspects of our daily lives. This technological triumvirate is at the heart of all telematics and the secondary, or derived, information equipment--not only the various types of terminals and customer premises equipment that one sees in catalogs and stores, but also all the much-less-visible transmission and switching equipment, plus the network operations support systems as well.

Superficially, the pace of technological progress may appear to be measured by the rate at which an increasing variety of telecommunications and Information Age gadgets, equipment and services, the secondary products, are made available to customers, both business and residential. But these product and service variations and differentiations are not always true indicators of progress in the underlying primary technologies.

It is usually the rate of progress in the latter that limits the rate of technological progress in telecommunications as a whole. The primary technologies pose tough technical difficulties and challenges that require considerable and sustained investments in relatively high-risk research and development.

Progress Has Been Spectacular

Nevertheless, progress in the underlying technologies has been nothing short of spectacular in recent years. (Parenthetically, this progress was due in no small measure to the unique structure of the telecommunications industry, which largely came to an end as we entered this Orwellian year.) Through advances in sillicon-chip technology, what would once have been room-sized computers can now be carried in hand calculators. Advances in lightwave and optical-fiber technology are making possible the economical transmission and distribution of broadband signals, making widespread video services increasingly likely.

And advances in software techniques are moving to put fantastic control and customizing capabilities in the hands of subscribers and local users instead of always requiring these capabilties to reside at nodes and controls points in the network. Customers will have increaseingly direct programming control over just what type of network and network services they want to use at different times of the day.

The onward thrust of comprehensive technolgical innovation did not quite stop with divestiture or with the constraints imposed by Computer inquiry II; but, as we shall see, in some ways technological progress in telecommunications has been made much-more difficult by these judicial and regulatory constraints.

Further Advances Will Come

Undoubtedly, further advances in silicon and photonics technology will continue; and these have the potential to drive functional costs down or, more likely, to enable more function to be provided per dollar. It is now quite well established that as experience accumulates with a new product family based on a new technological advance, so the unit cost trends downwards, sometimes by as much as a factor of two per year. Or looked at the other way, for the same financial outlay, the capability that is being put in the hands of a user or customer can increase every year by up to a factor of two.

In telecommunications networks, we're already seeing the trend from analog to digital capabilities made possible by the widening application of microelectronics. Increasingly, we will also see information network technology trend to wideband, as photonics takes hold, and to increasingly intelligent networks, as software becomes more and more sophisticated. These are the technological trends in telecommuncations networks, the advancing technologies that are driving communications policies--digital technologies, wideband technologies and intelligent technologies.

Further technological progress is irresistable. Technologists are driven by a mixture of curiosity and vision--a curiosity about the as yet unknown and a vision of what might be possible. Always, but usually unpredictably, there will be someone somewhere, at sometime, discovering a way to take technology a step further; and hopefully, the US will continue at the forefront of this quest.

News Spreads Like Wildfire

But news of such advances spreads like wildfire through the worldwide research community, triggering further advances. Even if we wanted to, it's virtually impossible to keep ideas, discoveries or inventions suppressed for long; often, not even the details of how the advances were made possible remain hidden. Though an enormous amount of work has to be done over the next few decades, where this continuing research quest is likely to lead seems quite widely recognized.

Clearly, we will still need telecommunications networks, though they will be far more complex and sophisticated than those we have today. They'll make possible a widening range of information services--for image, facsimile, graphics and video, as well as for data and voice. They will facilitate new services that customers will expect the telecommunications companies to provide, services such as ready access to a wide variety of information, education and entertainment sources, to libraries for archived knowledge (literature, music, plays and video programs on demand), to topical information regarding the weather, sports, catalog shopping, electronic mail and financial transactions . . . and so on. The possibilities are limited only by human ingenuity and inventiveness.

Networks Will Reach Subscribers

The networks will be able to reach the user or subscriber via portable radio terminal wherever he or she is rather than ending at a terminal at a designated physical position. Video facilities will become more sophisticated as users hook up their video cameras to the network. And perhaps displays will become three-dimensional via holography, as so often portrayed in Star Wars-type movies.

Increasingly, the user will have direct control over how the network is configured and used to provide the special services he or she needs, and only when they are needed. And with such capabilities, it will be increasingly possible for the networks to be used for remote monitoring, control, automation and robotics--for home operation, energy control and health services, for example, as well as for the more-familiar factory and office automation purposes.

But to make all this possible, the interfaces between people and the networks, which tend to be bottlenecks at presents, will have to become simpler to use, both for inputting and outputting information. Technology will have to be able to provide high-reliability direct voice and speech input, plus pattern and image recognition. And artificial intelligence will be needed to translate the deluge of information into forms mere humans can understand. Also, perhaps one of the major challenges facing information technologists is automatic translation between languages.

Foregoing Vision Implies Changes

The foregoing technological vision also implies major changes in lifestyles and working environments--the era of electronic schools and communicating to work. But all this depends on having efficient, reliable, economical telecommunications networks.

The great danger is that all the fragmentation, or balkanization, of the network that's now occurring will slow rather than prompt innovation in the network. Because in general, a transmission path, like a chain, is only as effective as its weakest link. Perhaps we have become so accustomed to the well-operating telecommunications network that we take its continued high performance for granted. but clearly, this will be more difficult to sustain as the ownership of the network becomes more and more fragmented.

Innovating and maintaining quality service was a major challenge even when one company and its engineers largely had the end-to-end responsibility. Now that this responsibility has been fragmented, the burden of creating an environment that will maintain quality and privacy of service at reasonable cost while preventing a technological Tower of Babel from forming will likely involve governmental regulators more than they realize.

But as they go about their tasks, it's important for them to remember that the underlying telecommunications technologies are common, much the same no matter what attempts are made to divide the field of application or to partition markets via the creation of more corporate entities and separate subsidiaries. Put simply, electrons, photons and bits don't know whether they are working in a regulated or an unregulated environment--a constant reminder of how technology, like nature, tends to mock efforts to channel or contain it. Another, more-specific variation on this theme is that the underlying technology is much the same whether it is for long-distance networks, exchange-area networks or local-area (customer-premises) networks.

Man-Made Lines Have Crumbled

We have seen other attempts to establish man-made lines of demarcation crumble before the laws of nature and the relentless pressure of technological progress. The classic in recent years has been the attempt to define a sharp line between communications and computing. Yet despite these lessons, efforts to delineate, to compartmentalize, to allocate, continue. Now we're struggling with debates over the boundaries between, for example, basic services and enhanced services, and network equipment and customer-premises equipment.

The outcomes of regulatory processes such as these, most of which are in the federal arena, have major implications for the further engineering of the networks and the services they provide to customers. Unfortunately, recent experience with regulatory processes is not always reassuring, either to the network technologist and operator or to the customer, or for the competitive position in telecommunications of the country as a whole.

Cellular Radio Was Overdue

Take cellular radio, for example. Technologists were ready and eager for years to get it into service. I have it in my car. It's a wonderful facility. But as a customer, I'm very disappointed that the regulatory process both denied me the service for so long and then, when it did allow it, required separate network facilities that made the service more costly than it needed to be.

Was this the most imaginative regulatory solution that could be found? A solution that required the technological leader to be put on hold for about a decade while the industry was restructured to allow others, including competitors abroad, to pick off many of the fruits of the leaders' efforts? Is this the way to encourage the sort of innovation that requires substantial up-front investment in relatively speculative research? It's important to weigh the tradeoffs involved in temporarily denying new technology to the public and the country in exchange for the promised or postulated added value achieved by the delay.

Voice-Message Storage Delayed

Another technological advance that ran into regulatory trouble in recent years was a centralized voice-message storage system. Such a system, which would have provided all subscribers with access to readily controlled message storage, forwarding and retrieval systems, was suddenly labeled an enhanced service because it was to store the customer's information and so was one which the regulated network was not allowed to provide to the public.

Instead, the customer had to wait for alternative approaches to be developed that were based on either customer-premised equipment or a costly enhanced network service without benefit of the efficiencies of sharing the existing telephone network. Competition between the two technological approaches that could have benefited the customer was actually denied by the regulatory process of dividing the system between network and customer premises, and the services between basic and enhanced.

Which brings me to yet another current competition--that between PBX systems on customer premises and feature packages provided from a central office. Both can often offer the subscriber similar functions, and there's no one best or most-economical solution for all types of subscribers. or most-economical solution for all types of subscribers.

Depending on their traffic patterns and feature needs, some users are served better from central offices, some from PBX systems. And if it's deemed appropriate, a central-office system can be programmed to include all the disadvantages of a PBX system as well as its advantages--the so-called virtual PBX system. Again, network technologists are having to perform all sorts of contortions in order to work within the strange regulatory rulings leading to artificial or unnatural partitioning of the market.

One more, very current, example is that of defining the dividing line between network equipment and customer-premises equipment. As every beginning network engineer knows, to achieve efficient signal transmission along a wire, waveguide or any other medium, the transmission line has to be terminated with a suitable impedance or circuit. It is essential that the network be terminated at the interface with the customer in equipment designed to perform critical network functions, such as line load balancing and line testing.

Standards Bring Competition

Furthermore, if designed to a widely accepted, nonrestricting standard, this terminating equipment is pro-competitive since it enables users to attach an infinite variety of equipment on the other side--equipment that can perform all sorts of information-handling services, provided that at the point of crossing the interface into the network the electrical or photonic and signal performances conform with the standards.

Clearly, therefore, the network operator can best assure the performance of the network--and make it equally accessible to all--if the prime responsibility is his for advancing the termination-equipment technology along with that of the rest of the network.

But here comes the rub: The natural place to locate the network-terminating equipment is just inside the customer's premises, and it has thus been ruled to be customer-premises equipment, over which the network designers and operators can have no control. Therefore, the network is potentially faced with the costly task of having to satisfy an increasingly divergent array of termination equipment as it gets developed independently by a number of suppliers of customer-premises equipment.

Alternatively, the network operator may have to place his network-terminating equipment just outside the customer's premises to provide what he must and still comply with the regulations. Maybe that will work, but it seems a great and unnecessary risk and expense to take. Other and better solutions could surely have been found that would still promote market competition while facilitating further technological innovation both in the network on the one side and in customerpremises equipment on the other.

Currently, the question of how to deal with alternative network paths open to customers is occupying center-stage. But perhaps I have said enough to underscore the terribly difficult problems that technologists and regulators jointly face in order to bring the best possible services to the customers with an increasingly fragmented network.

Deregulation to Benefit Users

This country embarked on a path to greater deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the belief that the customer would benefit from the greater competition that results. This could still happen, provided the path is not made too tortuous. also, the increasing complexity of telecommunications made deregulation inevitable, since no one person, group or organization can possess the infinite wisdom or knowledge necessary to identify the optimum solution, even if that solution would stay still for a moment.

The danger is that as the network becomes more fragmented, as markets get subdivided, and as services get partitioned, the ability of the networks to function effectively and meet the customer's needs and expectations could steadily diminish. Technologists can do such wonderful things that perhaps the public believes they can do anything if they're forced to try hard enough. So we technologists may tend to feel that communications policies are driving the technologies rather than the other way around, the exact opposite of what the headline of this article would imply.

In essence, the challenge that has been placed on network technologists is somehow to make an increasingly disintegrating, patchwork-quilt-type of network function even better for the customers than when it was a relatively integrated, coordinated system. And somehow to accomplish this while complying with all sorts of laws and regulations about what different fragments are not allowed to do together. Even Rube Goldberg, in his wildest flights of fancy, might not have dreamed up this one.

Networkers Must Work Harder

Clearly, instead of requiring from now on less networks systems engineering, development and research, the network companies will have to do much more if they are to keep their network capabilities advancing to meet their customers' growing needs and expectations. But, as network fragmentation proceeds (either voluntarily or involuntarily) and competition between the various fragments increases, prices get driven to costs and the various individual network entities may be less able to afford the vital research and development needed.

So, while increasing fragmentation of the network will inherently require much-more effort on the part of the technologists, the ability of the market to support them will be reduced because of internecine struggles. The irony is that the more the telecommunications network and market is fragmented in the belief it will promote more innovation through competition, the less truly innovative the total business may become. Perhaps this is yet another variant of Newton' s well-known law, that "action and reaction are equal and opposite." With such a scenario, we would not have to bother much in the future about any more technological Star Wars driving communications policies.

Clearly, I submit that this must not happen. So, from this brief review of trends, happenings and possibilities regarding the interplay between technology and public policies, I would like to draw three messages for all of us to heed:

Three Messages to Be Heeded

The first is to be truly alert to the dangers to this country's innovative ability in telecommunications posed by overfragmentation of the network and the telecommunications markets, especially in comparison with the advances that will be made in other advanced countries that choose not to fragment their networks or their technological efforts to anything like the same extent.

The second is to meet the needs of network customers by facilitating, where necessary, proper coordination and cooperation between the various network fragments or entities. The need is for workable but sufficiently flexible standards and regulations that promote technological innovation through equitable competition, not for rigid standards and regulations that hold progress down to the lowest common denominator.

The third is to facilitate the telecommunications entities in being sufficiently robust to be able to support--either individually or, when appropriate, cooperatively--the increased effort in network engineering, development and research that will be needed to make a fragmented network not only work, but to continue to be innovative in providing even more diverse and better services at acceptable cost to customers in the future.

Call Regulators Facilitators

These regulatory-environment factors have to be viewed as worthy challenges, the outcome of which will likely have far more effect on the future of innovation in telecommunications and on meeting customers' needs than would the elementary forces of plain technological competitions and market competitions themselves. Perhaps regulators should be called facilitators instead. That descriptive would have a more-positive ring about it and possibly a more-positive result from it, especially if it meant finding ways to reward risk-taking in the customer's interest rather than controlling or restricting it, thereby ensuring that this country remains in the forefront of technological innovation in telecommunications.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Chynoweth, A.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Mar 1, 1985
Previous Article:Air Force Engineering Center Links Eight Local-Area Nets.
Next Article:The Second Computer Inquiry Is Again Revisited with Regulating Services for the Public in Mind.

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