Technological Advances and Challenges in the Telecommunications Sector
REMARKABLE PROGRESS in telecommunications technology has had, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on telecommunications manufacturing and service industries. In particular, digital technology that integrates transmission, switching, processing, and retrieval of information provides opportunities to merge various service modes into an integrated whole. This digitalization, merging the communications and computation functions, has been made possible by dramatic advances in device and material technology, including integrated circuits and optical fibers. As the role of digital processing increases, systems and services become more intelligent and labor-saving on the one hand, and more software-intensive on the other.
Satellites and optical fibers, among other technologies, contribute significantly to the globalization of telecommunications services. Standardization and interoperability of systems have become global issues, as have compatibility of regulatory measures that ensure free trade in telecommunication products and services.
Because telecommunications are now indispensable to socioeconomic activities, reliability and security of telecommunications services have emerged as central issues. In our information age, information retrieval is gaining in importance, while concerns are surfacing about the integrity and authenticity of the information to be provided, as well as the protection of privacy. These diverse issues are important to the future of telecommunications industries.*
CONVERGENCE OF SERVICE MODES
Rapid innovation in information technology has made a variety of traditionally separate information services increasingly related. This trend is often
referred to as the convergence of service modes; the result is a drastic change for telecommunications products and services.
For example, telecommunication has already merged with information processing to provide data communication or on-line processing. Facsimile communication service provided by common carriers and electronic mail service provided by the post office will soon merge, eliminating the physical delivery of documents to and from customers. The difference between videotex by telecommunications services and teletext by broadcasting services will be minimized when cable television systems acquire two-way capability.
One benefit of the convergence of service modes is that it provides economies of scale; that is, many kinds of information can be provided in various forms through a variety of media at a reasonable cost. These benefits, however, will be lost without a reevaluation of regulatory measures, which traditionally have been organized on the basis of separate services. Because services cover broad areas that transcend national boundaries, international compatibility of these regulatory measures is necessary to ensure the unobstructed flow of information globally.
The invention of transistors and the subsequent progress of solid-state circuit technology revolutionized information technology, bringing such innovations as digital transmission, digital switching, and digital computers. The advent of optical fibers, lasers, photodiodes, and other photonic devices permitted lightwave communication over great distances. Clearly, major systems in modern telecommunication have been deeply dependent on innovations in the area of electronic devices and materials. This trend, often referred to as the microelectronics revolution, will intensify in the years ahead. New systems will depend more on the development of new devices and materials.
Characteristically, the technology supporting electronic devices and materials is capital intensive and quickly obsolete. Year after year, billions of dollars have been spent worldwide for research, development, and production of sophisticated devices, which, through keen competition in the marketplace, became cheaper and cheaper and eventually obsolete. Because of the rapid progress of large-scale integration that permits a sizable system to be mounted on a single chip, system manufacturers must also face the issue of capital-intensive investment and quick obsolescence.
As telecommunication technology becomes increasingly digital and computer-oriented, one major problem is the rising cost of software development and production. Although advances in device technology are lowering hard-
ware costs, software costs are soaring. The increase is due to the constant demand for more sophisticated and diversified types of software, as well as to the high labor costs associated with software development and production.
Several techniques, including structured programming, yield considerable improvement in software productivity. Yet much progress is needed before we will achieve dramatic improvements in software development, production, and testing. Because microprocessors are being used in an increasing variety of applications, tremendous efforts will be required to produce the many programs needed for specific applications.
Another problem associated with software is patent and copyright protection. Generally, patent protection has been given to hardware-oriented inventions. However, since algorithms are considered similar to mathematical formulas or laws of nature, it has been ruled that software-oriented inventions are not patentable. Some countries have amended their copyright law to allow specific programs to be copyrighted. However, in general, copyright protection cannot prevent infringement, as shown by numerous cases in which copyrighted articles are pirated.
STRUCTURAL CHANGES IN INDUSTRY
Whenever industry has changed in structure, workers in traditional industrial sectors have become obsolete and lost their jobs, and newly emerging industrial sectors have suffered from a shortage of workers. The present structural change brought about largely by information technology is no exception. Skilled workers, such as those who assemble telecommunication equipment, are losing their jobs to large-scale integration and the increasing use of industrial robots. Fewer telephone and telegraph operators and maintenance crews in switching centers are needed because of automation and digitalization. Jobs of general office workers are also threatened by the rapid penetration of word processors and other office automation equipment.
On the other hand, many job opportunities are being created in the area of software production. Extensive education and training will facilitate a smooth shift of the labor force from decaying to emerging areas. Such preparation is crucial in dealing with the enormous and unprecedented change now under way in the industrial structure.
Production of telecommunications software should be shared through an international division of labor. Because the needs of users differ from country to country, programs for specific applications have to be produced locally. Developing countries, where wages are relatively low and job opportunities for educated people are insufficient, may have an advantage over some developed countries, where wages are high and people are not motivated to adapt to structural changes in industry. In fact, quite a few newly industrialized countries have been active and successful in the area of software pro-
duction. Thus, information technology, through its impact on industrial structure, may provide the impetus for a country’s movement from developing to developed nation status. By the same token, developed countries that do not recognize and act on these trends will be unable to compete in this area.
As telecommunication services become global in scale, issues of standardization and of maintaining interoperability between systems and equipment have become extremely important. Standardization, however, is difficult to achieve for several reasons. First, the pace of innovation in telecommunication technology is very fast. Standards set too early may jeopardize future innovation, and if set too late, they are never used.
Second, because of networking, telecommunications require extensive standardization in software and hardware. A large amount of software at each switching center has to be standardized to attain economies of scale, ease of maintenance, and interoffice signaling. To enable communication between terminals and computers, sophisticated software standards known as communication protocols have to be developed and implemented. As equipment becomes more sophisticated, more software has to be standardized.
Third, because new products are designed by competing industries, their specifications tend to be diverse. This makes it particularly difficult to establish a single standard in such areas as computers, terminals, and video packages, where powerful market forces and emerging technologies make existing products and specifications obsolete.
Fourth, conflicts of interest may occur between countries or groups of countries in trying to establish a single standard, because such a standard would benefit some countries more than others. Hence, questions of fairness and political considerations must be addressed along with the technical issues.
Standardization in telecommunication technology requires a great deal of collaboration and compromise between governments, common carriers, and manufacturers. It also requires a thorough understanding of the state of the art, as well as insight into the future activities of all participants, not only governments, common carriers, and manufacturers, but also academicians and user representatives.
If it is impossible to establish a single standard, compatibility or interoperability between standards should be maintained to make interconnection possible. The open system interconnection (OSI) is typical of efforts to ensure interoperability between computers and terminals of different makes and models.
One encouraging note is that, despite two world wars and other international conflicts, worldwide standardization activities have continued and even accelerated in recent years. Standardization is an important area of inter-
national activity in which countries, industries, and individuals of diverse backgrounds and interests can think and act constructively and cooperatively for the good of humanity.
RELIABILITY AND SECURITY
Telecommunication systems are subject to a variety of external and internal disturbances. External disturbances include physical factors such as electrical noise, powerline failure, and natural disasters as well as human factors, such as operators’ mistakes, vandalism, and unauthorized access by outsiders. Internal disturbances range from chance and wear-out failures of components to hardware and software design errors not detected by testing.
Extensive studies of physical phenomena contributing to component failure have led to better component structure and fabrication techniques. Progress in large-scale integrated circuit technology under strict quality control has drastically reduced electronic device failure. Progress in redundancy techniques now makes it possible for a system to continue operating even when some of its subsystems fail. Automatic diagnosis and plug-in repair techniques have reduced the repair time for complex systems remarkably.
As hardware becomes more and more reliable, attention has been focused on software reliability. In most cases, software failure is caused by some imperfection that was not detected at the testing or debugging stage. These imperfections range from simple coding errors to complex mistakes or misconceptions in software design. Although various techniques have been developed to avoid errors in design and coding, making testing and debugging easier and more nearly complete, software is still less reliable than hardware because it is produced predominantly by humans, who make mistakes more often than machines do.
Security has also been addressed through various techniques that provide secure telecommunication services. Although switching centers and computers are protected by various means from unauthorized access, fire, and some natural disasters, telecommunication systems are still vulnerable to theft. For instance, a microwave link can be intercepted by a highly sensitive receiver from a distance of a few kilometers with a low probability of detection, and a satellite link can be intercepted anywhere. A magnetic disk pack or magnetic tape can be stolen or copied easily. For enhancing security, encryption is an indispensable tool. Various encryption techniques have emerged ranging from such practical methods as the Data Encryption Standard to highly sophisticated public key systems. Although some of the cryptographic systems would require an enormous amount of computing time to crack, they may not confer perfect protection, given the speed with which supercomputers are changing. Enhancement of liability coverage and backup safeguards is necessary to complement these technological measures.
Integrity of Information and Protection of Privacy
Information comes to us from diverse sources, even when it is supplied through a single telecommunication network. It has become extremely difficult for users, who are increasingly dependent on information, to know the original source of the information. Therefore, information providers should expend a great deal of care in gathering and handling data to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the information and make certain that users can determine the source.
This goal can be achieved in a number of ways. Full documentation of sources and methods is essential. Only authorized persons should be allowed to enter important data into data bases, to change data, or to process data for use by others, and there must be a record of these people and their activities. An audit trail must be provided through which one can trace entries into, and changes in, data bases and all steps in processing.
When information concerns individuals’ or organizations’ backgrounds and knowledge of activities, integrity of information implies confidentiality. If the information gathered is private, proprietary, or confidential, its disclosure might damage a person’s reputation or be financially injurious to an organization. Such information should be gathered only for the most compelling reasons, kept only as long as necessary, and guarded diligently against illicit use.
These technological advances represent only a few of the recent developments that have had a tremendous impact on telecommunication industries. In light of increasing dependence on information, our society needs an enormous stock of information, as well as appropriate means for selective access. In other words, the use of a variety of data bases and the development of data base management technology will significantly influence the growth of telecommunication industries. Because the ultimate objective of telecommunication is the promotion of mutual understanding and the enrichment of culture worldwide, technology that reduces language barriers, promotes computer literacy, and enhances computer-oriented music and arts will expand the horizons of telecommunication industries. All of these and other opportunities should be taken into account in assessing future changes in telecommunication industries.