Why is the Logo on My Phone Bill fading?

I recently got home from work dog-tired and started sorting through my mail. As I opened my cable TV bill, it hit me: The logo on the bill is guaranteed to change within the next few years. Why do I say that? There are just too many factors working against the folks currently offering telecommunications, cable and network services.

The first of these factors is technology - more specifically, voice (or any useful information) over IP. The basic premise of voice over IP is that, given big pipes, the technology will deliver high-quality information services. I don't know about your users, but mine are thinking about tunneling voice calls over fixed-price data circuits to avoid usage-based telephone charges. That's making my network manager and my voice vendors nervous.

The second factor working against the current providers is user access to lower levels of the Open Systems Interconnection stack. Five years ago, I was trying to figure out a way to run production voice and data services concurrently with leading-edge, scientific applications. All I really needed was access to fiber-optic cable, the transport or the switches. My requests were met with a thundering, "Huh?"

Flash forward a few years. I just had a strategy meeting with some folks from Qwest Communications International Inc. We discussed how we could run our experiments over the SONET, ATM or IP layers. I've had similar discussions with other vendors, and we've even talked about obtaining raw access to fiber. Best of all, the pricing is rather attractive.

The third factor pointing toward change concerns vendors' tendency to overprotect their service offerings. They are too slow to incorporate new technology. Even though there is interesting network research being done in their labs, it takes years to move the technology into their infrastructure.

Hint for the day: If you've got to pitch an interesting idea to a telecommunication vendor, aim high and low. I've found that the senior management of these companies tends to be visionary and the line engineers are eager to try new technology. However, the middle management or bureaucracy tends to be anchored in the past, resistant to change, overly protective and too controlling.

I'll grant you that my users aren't typical. They tend to do things like write protocols if they aren't happy with the ones already available. However, if your users grow frustrated with their communication services, they'll become just as sophisticated in a hurry. I just can't see how large, slow-moving telecommunications, cable and network services companies will be able to battle technology and increasingly savvy users.

Kuhfuss is chief information officer of Argonne National Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy's largest research centers. He can be reached at kuhfuss@anl.gov. The views presented in this column are his and are not meant to reflect the views of Argonne National Laboratory or the Department of Energy.

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