Will future advances of this magnitude be more difficult to achieve in today’s environment, particularly in the United States? The situation now is more dynamic than in the Bell System days, involving more competition and more opportunities for creative new ideas. Today, however, multiple vendors’ products are used to configure U.S. telecommunications infrastructure and deliver services, and multiple service providers (and thus even more vendors) are involved in delivering services that cross provider boundaries. As a result of the industry’s shift to a horizontal structure and its fragmentation into a large number of firms, neither vendors nor service providers are prepared to take responsibility for end-to-end systems design.
No single vendor can now drive architectural change in the same way that ATT was able to do in the past. Telecommunications vendors are able to make incremental improvements within existing frameworks, but major advances in system architecture or services may be more difficult, and innovation in services and applications may become constrained by continued reliance on obsolete network architectures. Also, what solutions are developed and deployed may be unnecessarily complex, fragile, and vulnerable because of too little investment in architectural work.
Cable television’s recent architectural transformation shows how an industry can create a new entity (in this case, CableLabs) to help drive change at least within a particular sector of the telecommunications industry. Cable systems were transformed from one-way, broadcast-only systems into two-way, multilayer systems that migrated fiber much further into the infrastructure while retaining coaxial cable as the final link to the customer. This new architecture positioned the cable industry to deliver video, voice, and data services. The nonprofit CableLabs consortium (described in greater detail in was established to address end-to-end issues for the cable industry through activities to identify and develop new technologies, write specifications, certify products, and disseminate information to the cable industry. Its activities are supported by subscription and testing fees paid by its members.
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