Peter Cochrane's Blog: Our bungling telecoms leaders

And their dire investment decisions that have cost us billions...

Written on the London-to-Ipswich train and dispatched to at 140km/h via free on-train wi-fi.

Some people can see to the horizon, and few beyond, but telecoms leaders always seem to be in a fog.

I was just going over various conference notes and comments going back 30 years and I came across some wonderful examples of near-sightedness, and not getting it, from leading telecoms figures worldwide. I have space only to include a few but they all make great reading:

  • Optical fibre will never displace copper and microwave radio.
  • Mobile communication will never be a big revenue earner.
  • No adult is going to sit there sending stupid little text messages.
  • We have no interest in VoIP and it will never be important.
  • Wi-fi will never have an impact on the telecoms industry.
  • Why would anyone want 10Mbps to their home?
  • The internet will always be asymmetric.
  • The iPhone will never sell - it doesn't have any hard keys.
Short-sighted telecoms decisions have cost industry and society billions in service delays and economic slowdowns

Short-sighted telecoms decisions have cost industry and society billions in service delaysPhoto: Shutterstock

Such one-liners would be really funny if they hadn't cost industry and society billions in bad investment decisions, service delays and economic slowdowns. Let's take three simple examples from the mobile industry:

  • Example 1. If five licences are granted to five operators, they build five overlapping networks, with five masts clustered on the same hillside.

    The competition was for services not towers.
    Estimated UK waste: £16bn.

  • Example 2. You buy from a network provider and you have to remain monogamous. You cannot use the handset with any other provider - the walled-garden service.

    The result? You can't get a signal from your provider at a given location, but you are getting three to five bars from the competition yet you are not allowed access.
    Estimated UK waste: £10bn.

  • Example 3. It is assumed digital services will be low-key and not mainstream with text-based communications dominating and the bigger files likely to be low-resolution photographs and similar.

    The outcome? An underinvestment in bandwidth and cell-site infill leading to massive congestion and networks unfit for purpose.
    Estimated UK waste: £20bn.

Fast-forward to today and:

  • Tower- and site-sharing are now starting to happen.
  • Network promiscuity is being favoured as an infill solution.
  • Providers are offloading digital services to free wi-fi sites.

And for a small fraction of all this waste by the UK industry alone, we could all be enjoying our own dedicated bandwidth over an optical-fibre feed to every home and office.

On the fun side, recall all those radio and TV interviews with experts, politicians and ministers agonising over people leaving wi-fi access unprotected, not to mention the years of lawyer time expended.

Without passwords, people would do this, that and the other bad things, and the wi-fi site owner would take the blame, be prosecuted, go to jail and so on. Ho hum, that didn't happen either, and now the spread of open wi-fi has become the norm.

I would be willing to accept the criticism that I am looking at all these issues with the benefit of hindsight, but I was part of an industry band of brothers who did get it. Although we fought hard, our logical, well-founded and common-sense arguments failed to penetrate the walls of dogma and ignorance. We did actually win a lot of battles, but clearly, not nearly enough.

Can I tell you that things are going to get better because of all this experience? Sadly, not through the traditional channels. What we really need is some new blood in core network provision and services. In short order, our mobile operators now look more like yesterday's telecoms providers with the umbilical cord cut.


Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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