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What's right with ISDN.


Those of you who have worked with focus groups and pilot installations to define the "golden ISDN application" are tired of the jibes from critics and ISDN bashers. We're hearing a different story from people who see ISDN in action.

This is admittedly a different approach from endless speculation about why it won't work. The raison d'etre behind ISDN is simple: People want to send information in any form--spoken, written, or visual--anywhere in the world, with the same ease and simplicity as in making at telephone call today.

During the past two years ISDN awareness has grown, raising many valid issues and some misconceptions as well. A popular criticism, that users do not need solutions in search of a problem, is a familiar refrain whenever new concepts are introduced.

Myopic Cynicism

In the case the ISDN, the major switch vendors and RBOCs have already made substantial investments in modern digital switches, and their futures depend upon delivering long-term network strategies that integrate products and services. But to imply that ISDN is maily an economic or survival tactic for switch suppliers and phone companies is myopic. These companies are in the business of finding innovative ways to improve communications and deploying them in standard ways. Who can deny that users are clamoring for standards? Aren't they tired of worrying about how to connect all their disparate equipment? And at what cost?

There is another group ISDN skeptics fail to appreciate: today's innovative ISDN users, predominatly large enterprises. As with most adoption curves, they represent a small percentage of the total population, but they are taking ISDN seriously and they represent a cross section of American business.

If ISDN is still years away, why are purchasers like Shell, Tenneco, 3M, Shearson Lehman Hutton, and the Commonwealth of Virginia buying it? These are top-shelf innovative organizations. They have the resources, dispersed environments, varied requirements, and strategic drivers that will provide ISDN implementors the fertile ground to develop meaningful ISDN applications.

If they didn't believe ISDN offered them competitive advantage, why would they bother? If ISDN is just a technology, would they take the time to make a major investment today? They could wait for future developments.

It's A Concept

Many people confuse ISDN with a technology.

It isn't a technology. It's a concept and a set of international standards. These standards are implemented and supported by the world's technological leaders.

It is true that users want solutions, not technology. It is also true that organizations that apply technology as a strategic imperative gain competitive edge. American Airlines' SABRE passenger reservation system is a frequently cited example of strategic deployment. Another is Levi Strauss' decision in the early 1980s to equip salespeople with portable computers, improving their service to store buyers and boosting their bottom line.

The individual end user wants to get on with his or her job. companies want networks that are cost-effective and reliable to support these business applications. however, those organizations that cannot see beyond the day-to-day realities of internal systems support may be in for a rude awakening.

The technologies supporting ISDN will become widely available if for no other reason than the planned and relentless evolution of the public switched network.

ISDN will be available to all business users, including the competition. the choice is simple: Take a proactive role in determining how new technological underpinnings can improve strategic business applications, or wait for the vendors to offer plain vanilla packages and hope your competitors are as patient.

Let's examine the five common reasons cursorily cited by those who take a "wait and see" attitude with ISDN:

* "ISDN is a case of vendor push rather than market pull."

Now that ISDN is in the initial deployment phase, this statement sadly seems true. Looking back to the early days of ISDN, however, a different view may be taken. European Postal Telephone and Telegraph (PTT) authorities developed the concept as a means to modernize their facilities in a way that would leapfrog the capabilities of what was recognized as the finest telecommunications network in the world--the U.S. network.

Why? Because, as they were told by their large multinational clients, the existing facilities were woefully inadequate to support modern business communications needs. Without dramatic improvements, these large companies might move entire operations out of a country, favoring locales with modern communications infrastructures. In this fundamental way, ISDN can be viewed as a long-term response to a market demand.

The irony for Europe is that after many years of developing the "Red Book" standard that defines ISDN, the U.S., driven by a highly competitive and partially deregulated marketplace, now appears to be in the lead with the deployment of ISDN.

There is another market response factor in the standardized nature of ISDN. Users have learned over the years that standards are necessary, be they de facto or defined, lest the cost and complexity of evolving business applications become prohibitive. In fact, very large users have demanded standardization even from the most dominat and independent suppliers. Witness the requirements of General Motors, the U.S. government and others relative to the growing importance of Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) in the computer systems and software industry.

The market demand for state-of-the-art, standardized communications connections will increase as the world moves toward a global economy. This may occur first in the financial services industry, a truly global community. Other global trading communities will follow.

* "ISDN trials and pilots are fishing expeditions for the 'golden ISDN application.'"

It depends on your point of view whether the glass is half full or half empty. Well planned fields trials will yield useful results for both the vendors and users involved. They are not scientific experiments. There is no hypothesis to prove, but there are products and services to beta-test.

Given the size and complexity of a central office switch and the broad array of hardware and software products involved, the extent and number of test sites is not only warranted, but necessary. If these activities create an environment conducive to innovation, it is a win-win for all participants.

Should the golden application come first? Rarely has that been the case in the computer industry. It is recognized, and perhaps somewhat an act of faith, that putting more powerful and flexible tools in the hands of creative people results in more innovative output. After all, Jobs and Wizniak built the first Apple computers for hobbyists. They did not wait for someone to invent Visicalc.

* "ISDN is voice based, in an era increasingly dominated by data."

ISDN does reveal its voice underpinnings with its 64 kb/s "B" channels. Proponents do take pride in that heritage. However, despite the high growth rate of data communications, it will be many years before it competes with voice in terms of traffic load. It is incorrect to view the Information Age as an era dominated by data, when information is the important factor to the business world. Information will be communicated in many forms, one of the most fundamental of which is conversing.

The telephone is the life line of virtually every business in America today. As anyone involved with telecommunications can tell you, it is because the voice people make it easy. The network problems of naming, addressing, routing, flow control, protocol conversion, network management, gateways, security and so on are relatively transparent to the user. It works virtually first time, every time, all the time, instantaneously, and it's as easy as dialing a telephone.

Could it be that such a vast systems complex of hardware, software and high-speed data transmission links does not have to be hard to use or involve archaic data processing lingo and be rendered unavailable periodically for updates and maintenance? Could it be that corporate America has embraced mainframes, SNA, LANs, etc., because there was little choice, and the industry lacked a supplier with either the vision or desire to make computing tools universally accessible and affordable to the masses?

The most robust strength of telephony is circuit switched flexibility. Connections are made anytime, to any place, at the simple touch of a button, on a platform allowing for ubiquity and reasonable cost. It brings communication power to the people just as the PC delivers computing power. The acceptance of PCs in corporations is an acknowledgement of the need for more flexibility in the dispersion of computing resources, and will increase the demand for circuit switched digital connections.

PC users engender a different culture than the mainframe's white-coated mystics. It is a culture that is more individualistic and oriented toward immediate gratification, and is better served by circuit switched flexibility. Once ISDN is more widely available, its growth will be driven by the global business community, which requires real-time responsiveness in an environment characterized by dynamic markets, mergers and acquisitions, consortia and collaborators, and business managers that demand rapid access to a growing variety of data and information sources.

It is interesting to note that large corporations have been seeking, for several years, standardized wiring plans based on twisted pair, which is in place, less expensive, and more flexible when rearranging offices.

ISDN was born of a desire to address the inevitable convergence of voice and data communications with the strengths that made telephony a powerful business communications tool. It would be a disservice to those on both sides of the issues if ISDN's information and data handling capabilities are ignored because of a narrow perception that it started life on the wrong side--the voice side--of the tracks.

* "ISDN is too little too late for LAN users, and too early for everyone else."

The only thing certain is that it is to early to tell. The vast majority of desktops in the business world today have telephones, but do not have either a PC or a terminal. They represent a huge market potential post-1992, when ISDN will be fully deployed an interconnected between all major metropolitan areas in the U.S. In that time frame, the CCITT will address ISDN's evolving supplementary services, adding value to the broad array of integrated facilities available from the basic services specifications.

LANs are a legacy of the data processing era in that they are point solutions engineered to address specific problems; fundamentally, they are closed networks in an increasingly open world. They have been playing catch-up ball with mainframes and mini systems for years, in order to provide basic necessities such as file storage, print spooling, electronic mail, etc.

Not surprisingly, MIS departments have championed LANs. By the time a departmetn is finished building what is essentially an office automation system from the ground up, it needs a systems manager to support it.

LANs were more cost effective than PBXs for data when introduced, despite relatively expensive interfacing costs and limite functionality. They could be used selectively, where bandwidth improvements were a high priority, and without the long-term investment in a voice/data PBX that averages costs across a company-wide system. the initial cost of wire is not the issue, and all data communications interfaces drop in cost over time, including ISDN's.

Practical buyers analyze the total cost of ownership, which includes internal management, cost of rearrangements, growth plans, service and support, life of the installation, geographic coverage, etc. LANs will never provide an enterprise solution. Public network bandwidth, with ubiquity, is becoming relatively inexpensive and mundane, the province of voice communications. Multiple, heterogenous wiring plans on such a broad scale are expensive to live with, and can inhibit organizational dynamics.

If positioned correctly, ISDN will not only cexist with LANs, but will enhance their functionality. And, like modems, ISDN will be more intuitive to adopt and use by the average PC user. Telephones for ISDN with integrated data connectors are already available, as are a variety of plug-in boards for PCs. A 64 kb/s data channel is high speed and more than adequate for most PC file transfers, and there is no throughput contention as usage increases.

File transfers, screen sharing of bit-mapped images, and cooperative processing (i.e., interactively sharing the same CPU) are being accomplished fluidly, within the real-time realm of a telephone voice conversation, using ISDN today.

* "The residence market for ISDN is speculative."

In fact, it does not yet exist. That is not to say that the industry lacks vision in this area. today's telephone company managers rose through the ranks as purveyors of universal service, and they are now the decision makers guiding the network to ISDN. They were successful in the past migrating enhanced service features, such as call waiting and call forwarding, from the business to the consumer segment.

With more than half of the RBOCs' revenues coming from residential subscribers, it is unlikely this important sector of the market will be ignored. While growth in home banking, information services and telecommuting has been slow, it is steady. The timing may be ideal for the innovative use of ISDN in the home during the latter half of the next decade. Will ISDN break this barrier by itself? Probably not, but it will be ready for the next generation of information providing entrepreneurs to exploit.

What's The Holdup?

If ISDN holds all this promise, why is it not generally recognized? The problem is trying to sell integrated services and solutions to a non-integrated world. Telecommunications and MIS/DP departments, and purchase decisions, are organizationally separate. Although ISDN functionality is already supported by technological developments that can lead to a renewed revolution in desktop computing, the message has not been communicated well.

Telephone companies, as their customers would have it, are dutifully focused on making the voice aspects of ISDN as pedestrian as analog telephony. With a standard, modular ISDN jack, desktops can plug in, in a simple, quick-and-easy way, and achieve grass-roots networking like they never have before.

Until the vendors overcome their own limitations in getting the ISDN message across more effectively, the real potential for ISDN will remain in the hands of a few progressive thinkers.

Who are they? Perhaps they are the internal champions and external consultants capable of seeing beyond organizational bounds, acting without habit and overcoming resistance to change.

Why will they do it? Because there are segments of the market where the standardization, flexibility, real-time nature nad ubiquity of ISDN are of value for the true integration of applications involving concurrent voice and data tasks. The danger is that ISDN will remain a steadfast evolutin, delaying the benefits for a braoder audience which a revolution in basic-rate ISDN communications can bring.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:cynicism clouding Integrated Services Digital Network discussion
Author:Sirota, Warren
Publication:Communications News
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Missing link.
Next Article:Utility polishes private network.

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