Written on the Ipswich to London train and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi service in London on the same day
I often feel that new life-changing technologies come and go in the ICT industry like the seasons. As a result people seem to be on a high about something an awful lot of the time but my observation is that many of these events are repeats from 10 or more years previous and a natural progression.
At a recent conference there was a big debate on NGNs (next generation networks). Some of the attendees saw them as the next big thing and an essential step in the progression of telecoms and the internet, while others saw it all as shiny tin and toys for the boys.
Here is a different perspective: as a young man I came into a world dominated by copper - twisted pair and coax - powered by thermionic valves (or tubes in the US nomenclature). This was a heavy metal (literally) analogue world of high costs and very high prices. My first (personal) experience of a NGN came with the arrival of the transistor which immediately reduced equipment sizes and power consumption, and increased the number of speech circuits per pair.
The next NGN involved the earliest integrated circuits and going digital over copper. While traffic density improved again, the really big win was in signal fidelity and quality of service (QoS). But the most dramatic leap occurred when optical fibre arrived. Repeater spacing went from 2km to 40km or more, capacity projections went off the scale, power demands dropped and everything, including QoS, improved beyond recognition.
A typical phone company of the late 1980s and early 90s saw staff reductions of more than 50 per cent and the start of a very rapid fall in the cost of connection and capacity. As networks digitised switching and transmission everything improved beyond recognition. A cable space that originally accommodated a few tens of calls could now deal with millions.
By virtue of the purity of glass and laser light, signals were soon spanning more than 100km without repeaters and digital switches could be located in far fewer densities than ever before. But beyond the graduation to optical fibre, the next NGN advance was the most critical - the move to internet protocol.
What did this string of NGNs actually do? A telco employing about 300,000 people in the 1980s now only needs about 30,000 when fibre is extended down to home and office. Hard-wired interconnections are replaced by programmability, all of the copper network weaknesses such as water ingress and people-induced failures are eradicated. Moreover, building stock reductions from thousands of sites to tens of sites can be achieved and power reductions have a radical impact on the entire ICT chain.
Today we enjoy a global connectivity and bandwidth price/service offering that was unimaginable 20 years ago and, for some it seems, five years ago! NGNs are not about toys for the boys - they are about massively improving everything in ICT.
And in the next phase of NGN excitement we will see a hybrid mix of digital-analogue operation that will eradicate much of the electronic content, leading once more to further dramatic improvements and cost reductions.
Those who grasped the nettle and extended fibre to home and office will thus achieve vast and continuing savings, while those hanging onto their copper past will fight to survive untenable operating costs that continue to grow.
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.