US telecomms research in disarray - official

No clear way out

SuperComm It's rare to see such immense concern on the face of US technology executives and government regulators. But concern is the exact word needed to describe the state of panelists debating the health of the US telecommunications industry during a panel held here Monday at the SuperComm conference.

The US tends to enjoy a position of prestige in most things IT. This, however, is not the case in telecommunications where major US corporations have been punished by a bust of magnificent proportions, a mess of wireless technology standards, and mediocre broadband adoption rates. And where is the blame best placed for our poor telecom position? Maybe with the government and what some see as insufficient research and development aid from Uncle Sam.

"Research is important, and we need more of it," said Peter Rooney, deputy director of the House Committee on Science, and one of six panelists debating the state of telecom R&D spend here. "We are always advocating a robust American scientific enterprise."

But it was Rooney and the bureaucratic enterprise he is part of that came under fire from the SuperComm crowd for not doing enough to promote the robust science he described. Of particular concern, conference attendees worried that companies such as Lucent and MCI are now only a fraction of their former size, meaning less research and development money will flow from the private sector. In addition, venture capitalists have pulled back dramatically on their investments on radical, ahead-of-their time ideas.

"Large companies are the ones who have driven research 15 to 20 years out," said one audience member during a question and answer session. "But those companies don't have that latitude anymore. What are we going to do ten years from now when we realize that fiber optics is tired and have to look at what we do after that?"

Whether it's large companies, start-ups or universities that really drive the long range research is not really the point. The main worry is that the EU and Asian countries are outdoing the US with regard to the help they provide to advance telecommunications technology.

The US tends to put the bulk of its research spending behind defense technology, biomedical research and high-end computing. This is due, in part, to the priorities the government has identified and a belief that a deregulated telecommunications market will take care of itself with regard to pushing technological boundaries. Life, however, is tough for telecommunications companies that agree on very little. A prime example of the disagreement being the varied standards for next-generation cell phone networks. US companies are competing for the sake of competing, trying to create differentiation out of thin air.

In addition, the companies are apparently not doing much to help themselves in Washington.

"Nobody deploys more lobbyists than the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA)," Rooney said. "One would wonder why they are not more effective. But one group wants one thing, and the other wants the opposite. You would make the Silicon Valley crowd look sick (if you got together). Their big disadvantage is they come from a libertarian mindset where they believe the government should not exist. That is not a problem the telecommunications industry shares."

Rooney, and others, proposed that the telecom sector adopt policies similar to those used by semiconductor companies. Chip makers tend to lay out very specific long range technology roadmaps. The vendors agree on where the trouble spots for shrinking transistors will be and then put their collective minds behind solving these problems. This type of focus helps the government out, letting it know where investment should be directed.

One industry executive, however, suggested that this level of agreement is near impossible in an industry that has gone through tumultuous times, including deregulation, a boom and a bust.

"To have a roadmap, you need a way of getting together," said Jeffrey Jaffe, president Bell Labs Research for Lucent. "It has been difficult to get that kind of focus."

Jaffe argued that creating an entire communications infrastructure and guessing where it might go next is a tad harder than narrowing in on cramming more transistors on a processor. He then put the focus back on the government, pointing to the EU's Sixth Framework research model as something the US should consider.

Jaffe managed to use a healthy dose of sarcasm as tool in goading Rooney.

"I am delighted to hear from my colleague in the public sector that there is a tremendous desire to fund basic research in new ideas, if we would only bring them forward," Jaffe said. "I think it is fascinating that we have such a capacity in this country. In the telcos, we have lots of ideas to work on."

Well said.

Al Vincent, director of the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, backed up the position on government spending, saying federal funding for telco programs has been "increasing at a fairly decent clip." The US currently spends 2.6 percent of its GDP on research as compared to the 1.9 percent spent by the EU, although the EU hopes to raise this total to 3.0 percent by 2010.

"The basic story is that the government side is slowly increasing, and the industry side has dipped and is slowly coming back," Vincent said.

And what US technology debate would be complete without a member of DARPA showing up. In this case, Preston Marshall, a program manager in DARPA's Advanced Technology Office (ATO). Marshall, who came over as a geeky version of Hunter S Thompson, refused to participate in the silly squabble over whether the government or industry was in the right on this funding issue. That's because they are all wrong.

Off in the wacko labs, DARPA is looking for something revolutionary and has grown tired of researchers touting their ability to wring more performance out of TCP/IP, or flaunting new wireless access devices. 802.11 cards are so old hat, Marshall said.

"I think the telecommunications industry has been grossly ill-served by its early success (with the Internet and cell phones)," Marshall said. "It has made the telecommunications industry incredibly evolutionary with products that are two or three times better. Our threshold for funding is something that is 10 times better."

Can you really measure how much better one Terror Casino is than another? We digress.

Marshall suggested that researchers would be really useful if they "banned IP" from their minds all together and looked to the unknown.

Overall, the government officials put a lot of pressure on the private sector and research bodies. The Feds won't fund any project that could harm current business models, because there's no sense in knocking our own companies. So they want the private sector and universities to come up with technology that will benefit everyone equally and that has no application today. Great. Get to it.

Exactly how these telcos are to get together and agree on what these magic technology areas might be is difficult to imagine. With the antitrust regulators watching the telcos every move, it would seem a tad difficult to set up a meeting to discuss how they all might move forward as a collective. ®

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