Irrespective of age, almost everyone has had the somewhat disconcerting experience of running into an old friend – at the grocery store, a reunion, or a business meeting – and not recognizing them immediately. The passage of time changes us all and few of us appear as we were years ago. The mind recalls others from an earlier age and we struggle to reconcile the face we see now with the face of a friend as we remember it.
I’ve had the pleasure – most of it has been pleasurable – of spending my career in Telecommunication. At some point along the way “telecommunications” became “information technology” – a broader and more inclusive term. That change has been both gradual and at the same time abrupt. As my old technical support guy from my Bell System days would say, it is “steady by jerks.” But the telecommunications industry I began working with and learning about 38 years ago is like an old friend that today is barely recognizable. It’s tempting, in fact, to say that the technology sector, particularly what was once called “telecom,” has experienced more change that just about any other segment.
I began my career with Northwestern Bell Telephone as an outside salesperson selling such high tech devices key telephone systems, answering machines, and long distance calling plans. These were all primarily voice technologies. Data transmission was more mysterious, with speeds measured in baud rates and bandwidth expressed in terms of T1 channels. The Bell System network was a masterfully engineered collection of switches designed to nail up and take down dedicated connections in the most efficient possible way. Many local switches were electro-mechanical devices that clattered busily like so many skeletons tap dancing as traffic passed through them. But the fundamental piece was the backbone network of the Bell System.
Engineered to handle up to 200,000,000 calls a day, the network rarely blocked more than a hundred or so call attempts. The busiest day of the year was always Mother’s day – until a change began to occur in the kind of traffic the network was carrying. At some point, the crown for “busiest day” changed. Yes, Mother’s day kept the record for greatest number of minutes of use, but the largest volume of calls now occurred on the day after Thanksgiving – “Black Friday.” And the driver of that traffic was credit card swipes. Data transmission. By the tens of millions. For the record, the greatest number of “collect” calls were generated on Father’s day.
This shift was also evident in the basic technology of how information itself was packaged for processing. The analog world into which I was introduced as a PBX sales guy was turned upside down by something called “digital.” We thought Time Division Multiplexing was high technology, but transmitted data was still made to conform with voice on the network as analog signals rode their own dedicated connections from point A to point B. Digital technology would change all that.
Ethernet. Packetized data. Frame Relay. ATM, OSI models, TCP-IP, and then the Internet. My old friend, Telephony, was being changed. But technology wasn’t changed for the sake of change alone. It was being changed by economics.
The migration from a network based on circuit switching versus packet switching was one of the key changes that has driven the evolution of network technology. Packet technology could wring every last drop of utility out of a connection, loading massive amounts of information into a transfigured network enabling lightning fast transmission speeds. No more dead air. This, and the introduction of Optical carriers to replace copper. The term “scalable” entered the lexicon mostly because of fiber – greater and greater amounts of traffic enabled by uniform standards and technologies that fit together like so many puzzle pieces.
Robert Metcalf, the co-inventor of Ethernet, created Metcalf’s Law. Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. The greater the number of endpoints, the more power to be found in the network itself. And there is real agent of change – power. A more powerful network is a more efficient, cost-effective, capable network. Economic value is a consequence of power.
Connectivity is now an indispensable strategic tool enabling growth. The networks of my earlier days were clever, elegant in their own way, and reliable. But they weren’t powerful. The power of the new network working in tandem with powerful new devices is driving economic growth like never before and producing amazing things.
The next generation of technology will harness quantum entanglement – the strange behavior of particles at a sub-atomic level – to produce computational devices tens of thousands of times more powerful than what exists today. The way in which these devices communicate and collaborate will certainly change in ways that we can only imagine. Teleportation technology may be in our future.
My old friend Telephony raised me and for that I am grateful. Telephony deserves a proper retirement, one lush with gratitude for ushering in the technology we use today. And one day we may look at many of our current friends and they, too, may appear hard to recognize. It’s the way of the world, and for many the end of the world as we know it.
By Dan Conrad