This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: What's Wrong—What's Next: 2003 Technology Forecast & Review.
SCOTT BRADNER, an area director for the Internet Engineering Task Force (and a senior technical consultant at Harvard University by day), plays a key role in technologies critical to the Internet's future, including IPv6, the first new scheme to expand the Internet address space in 20 years
HENRY SCHACHT, the 68-year-old former Lucent Technologies chair, returned to that position in October 2000, when the company's stock price was US $20, or so, down from a 1990 high (reached during his absence) of $83 a share. Today it hovers not far above the critical $1 delisting point. The company has shed three-fourths of its employees and has already spun off two companies, Avaya and Agere Systems, and its entire fiber-optic business. What's left?
You know that quote about really advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic?" a friend recently wrote me. "I'm sitting here on my front porch, watching the rain, listening to Don Giovanni on my iPod, and sending this e-mail on my laptop, my cellphone by my side." It wasn't that long ago that this 57-year-old Philadelphia clinical psychologist was dialing a rotary telephone and playing vinyl records on a phonograph player.
Like my friend, we've all come a long way. Undoubtedly, any picture gallery of the telecommunications industry must display some disturbing images, including ones of the dot-com disaster, the collapse of demand for products and services, misguided regulations, accounting scandals, layoffs, and bankruptcies on a massive scale. But there's also the idyllic still-life-with-end-user painted above, featuring, as it does, what's still right in telecom.
Broadband Internet access continues to grow almost everywhere in the world, with especially rapid expansion in South and East Asia and Eastern Europe. Wireless local-area networks, most of them based on the IEEE's 802.11b standard, have popped up in transportation terminals, offices, coffee shops, and homes—including my friend's. New cellphone services such as text messaging and the sending of photos have been a big hit. Indeed, consumers have shown themselves willing to spend more than ever before on media and communications hardware and services. The challenge now is for companies to come up with offerings that will keep people digging into their pockets.
And they are. Higher-speed wireless services are in the offing: both faster 802.11 standards and the much-maligned third-generation (3G) cellular systems, which, despite uninspiring debuts in cellphone-friendly Japan, are poised for a much better reception in coming months there and in places like China and the United States. And coming not much later will be true broadband wireless networks—pure Internet-protocol (IP) voice-capable 2-Mb/s-and-higher data networks for which some analysts are even trotting out the term 4G. Connected to an Internet whose last-mile tentacles into the home are increasingly broadband—DSL, cable, and, eventually, fiber optics—the new wireless systems will give people new mobility and freedom not felt since the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century.
Going digital has already rewritten the business playbooks of telecommunications and the entertainment industry. Now, with combination cellphone/personal digital assistants (PDAs) and laptops and tablets equipped to commune with whichever connection is handiest, be it broadband data lines here, an 802.11 node there, a faster-than-narrowband 3G system everywhere, ubiquitous Internet-based communications networks will remap lives and lifestyles in the same way that freeways and autobahns did 50 years ago.
Broadband: alive and well, thank you
When added together, these elements of future networks will let us do remarkable things. But to read some recent accounts, you might think they've already failed. Take broadband: Bill Gates and countless other industry bigwigs have complained about slow adoption rates in the United States. Yet nearly 20 million U.S. households have signed up with broadband in the four years it has been widely available—a much faster rate of adoption than that of cellphones in the early 1990s (a common benchmark for rapid technology adoption). That's about 15 percent of all households. For comparison, only about 30 percent have one or more cellphones, despite that technology's 10-year head start. The research firm Technology Futures Inc. (Austin, Texas) says that broadband will hit that 30 percent mark in the United States sometime in 2004.
Even today, though smaller in number, broadband users account for more than half of all home-based minutes spent on-line. And outside the United States, the figures are even more favorable. In South Korea and Singapore, for example, more than half of all on-line households have a broadband connection.