The Future of the Telecommunications Industry: The Connected Community

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The second of the Plenary Session papers from the World Productivity Congress we are publishing this month also concerns telecommunications and is the presentation by Louis Tanguay, President and Chief Operating Officer of Bell Canada

A presentation to the World Productivity Congress, Edinburgh, October 1999

I am particularly pleased to be able to join you in Edinburgh. Not only is it a charming city, but I have been employed within the Bell Canada Group of companies throughout my professional career. Bell Canada is one of the 2 original telephone companies founded on the basis of Alexander Graham Bell's patent for the "harmonic telegraph" or telephone, the other being the enterprise now known as AT&T. And this city is his birthplace, from whence he emigrated to Canada while still a boy.

I have been asked by the Conference organisers to predict and assess the future evolution of the global telecommunications industry for your consideration. It is a task which I frankly approach with some trepidation. Indeed, to understand how wrong one can and probably will be about the future of telecommunications, consider what a speaker would have been saying one hundred years ago today, if asked the same question about the 20th century.

In 1899, Bell's telephone was less than 25 years old; and Marconi had demonstrated his new system for point-to-point communication - wireless telegraphy - just a few years earlier.

If the speaker had recited the conventional wisdom of the day back in 1899, he would have probably told you this: "Alexander Graham Bell's telephone was destined to become the great broadcast medium of the 20th century; while Marconi's wireless spark transmitter would be the great breakthrough in point-to-point communication the innovation which would enable Britannia and the Royal Navy to continue to rule the waves."

As we all know with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, that conventional wisdom had it all wrong. Telephony - what the President of Western Union Telegraph in the United States had once dismissed as "an electrical toy", grew throughout the 20th century into a global, two-way, point-to- point communications network. And early in the 20th century, a second, though less well-known Canadian, Reginald Fessenden, confounded such sceptics as Thomas Edison by broadcasting voice via continuous radio wave, paving the way for radio to be the key to mass, one-way broadcasting throughout the rest of the 20th century.

One lesson we can take from the conventional wisdom of 1899 is that "those who live by the crystal ball are destined to eat ground glass." But I think the real lesson is this.....While it may be true, as the Bible tells us. that "where there is no vision, the people perish", it is even more true for telecom visionaries that "where there are people, the vision perishes." For, when it comes to communications, the ingenuity of man knows no bounds.

So with that deliberately large caveat, let me take up the challenge and paint a picture of the communications industry in the early years of the 21st century. Note I said the early years, because predicting the future of communications is much like forecasting the weather. You have a 60% chance of being right about the weather tomorrow if you simply say it will be the same as today. But your chances of accuracy recede thereafter. So I am going out on a limb and predict a few of the key characteristics of the telecom industry of the early 21st century - based on trends and developments which have already taken place.

We all know we are in the midst of the creation of a digital world - the fusion of the formerly distinct worlds of video, voice and data transmission into integrated communications and computer networks, where information intended for the human brain, whether via the eye, the ear, or both, can now be reduced to the same bit. It is now only the regulators and the legislators - and those seeking to retain or gain competitive advantage through public policy - who are keeping us from a world where "a bit is a bit is a bit". …