DARPA or Bell Labs. And how we will be able to operate secure networks. Perhaps most important, how will the United States be able to compete globally in telecom against countries that are making concerted efforts to develop technology for export? Do we need a government policy to prop up the telecom industry, just as SEMATECH came to the rescue of the semiconductor industry two decades ago?
The United States does not like to pick winners or losers, but considering the dot-com situation and the lack of investment in U.S. R&D, combined with the chasm between academia and industry, I submit this is one time when the government should reach in to encourage and assist industry in reinvesting and engaging with U.S. universities to try to repair the damage done by market forces. If we care about U.S. citizens having expertise and research acumen in the telecommunications field, something must be done to encourage them and to give them a reason to put forth the effort to attain the necessary skills. U.S. taxpayers should also be made aware of the falling enrollments of U.S. citizens on engineering campuses throughout the United States.
In this section I suggest some steps that could be taken to turn the tide for telecommunications R&D in the United States. First, we need a federal policy that encourages and rewards U.S. industry for engaging in a new social contract like the one the telecom community had for decades in the United States. That contract meant that companies were actively involved on campuses, and they provided scholarships. Reviving this social contract may require government engagement.
Before the dot-com crash, when I headed the wireless center at Virginia Tech, more than 30 major companies came to Blacksburg, Virginia, to invest in our research center and engage with our students. After the dot-com crash, the number fell to about 10, and two of those were from China and Korea. That is a real drop-off! If we can’t bring more companies back to academia, professors will be working on problems that are peer-reviewed by other professors in a vacuum, without regard to market needs and without long-term marketability for the benefit of the U.S. telecommunications industry.
Second, we need a public-private “big picture,” a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG), that will lead to hope for the future. Bob Galvin gave us some examples of big-picture projects in his keynote address—new architecture, wireless Internet, middleware. The United States has so many opportunities to take the lead, to solve a national problem through technology. But we are not doing that. We need a “man-on-the-moon” kind of mission to rally our industry and engage creative minds in thinking about how we can improve our nation.
I agree with Bob Galvin that, in some instances, public policy needs to help pick future technologies. “Road mapping” is probably too strong a term in the case of telecommunications, but as you can read in Renewing U.S. Telecommunications Research, if we don’t do something, we are going to continue to lose our lead. As a successful businessman once told me, if you are not going up, you are going down. Unless the United States moves forward with a vision in telecommunications, we are in for a tough time.
Now that Bell Labs is gone and DARPA is no longer doing what it used to, we need a national policy or entity that can bring us together, in telecom. As we just saw, IEEE conferences aren’t doing that. Universities are there, but industry is absent on campuses. Industry is doing a lot of internal research, but the results lead to filing for patents instead of publishing papers. Microsoft and Motorola have huge research organizations, both internal. These companies used to engage with the academic community. My concern is that if we don’t bring industry and academia together, our relevance on the global telecom stage will be greatly diminished.
I will close with this final thought. Let me ask everyone in the room to please raise your hand if you grew up somewhere other than the United States. Raise your hand proudly. So, maybe 10 or 12 percent of the people in this room were born outside the United States. How many of you grew up in the United States and went to college in the United States? The overwhelming majority, 90 percent.
Consider that the data I have presented show that in graduate programs in telecom throughout the United States today, the numbers are diametrically opposed to the numbers in this room. On college campuses today, most of the graduate students in telecommunications and electrical engineering did not grow up in the United States; they did not grow up in the culture of the United States. This presents us with a great opportunity, but also a great challenge.
If we want this room to be filled 20 years from now when the United States faces a new crisis, we must make sure that the students in graduate schools today stay in the United States, can find gainful employment in the United States, and have the necessary support for the United States to remain a leader in telecommunications innovation. If we don’t do that, all the creative minds will leave the United States and go to other countries, perhaps their home countries, where they have the opportunities and incentives to make an impact.
Friedman, T.L. 2005. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
NRC (National Research Council). 2006. Renewing U.S. Telecommunications Research. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.