Good technology never dies

01 Feb 2006

It's practically a clich‾these days to draw comparisons between the telecoms business and the railway industry. But I'm going to do it anyway. Just for a second. Bear with me, please.

Last month, I was sitting in a hotel room in San Diego by the bay thinking up potential topics for this very column when I noticed that the hotel was sitting next to a railroad track. I noticed this because of all the trains rolling by, blaring their horns at full volume at oncoming car traffic and rolling slowly but inevitably toward their destination, occasionally stopping and holding up traffic for 20 minutes at a time.

Naturally, I started thinking about ATM.

Okay, that was a joke. ATM fans, feel free to send IP jokes to the usual address. I will print them in this space if they make me laugh.

What I actually thought when I watched the trains trundle by was how remarkable it is that people are still finding uses for a technology invented almost two centuries ago.

This shouldn't be all that remarkable, really. Whatever you think about them as revenue generators, I think one reason we still continue to use them is because they're already built and, for the most part, still work.

Coming back to telecoms, that got me to thinking of how parts of the communications industry still tend to think in terms of either/or when it comes to technology. GSM will kill CDMA. Wi-Fi will kill 3G. WiMAX will kill Wi-Fi. Ethernet will kill Sonet/SDH. The Internet will kill print, TV, radio and everything else. And so on.

Such talk makes for good headlines and press releases, but it's not always true.

Take last month's news about Pakistan's PTCL shutting down its telegraph and telex exchanges, ostensibly because no one uses them. Only some people do - like the court system and the Islamic Ideology Council (see this month's Backpage Briefing for details).

Not quite dead

That doesn't mean telex is dead, though. It just means it's dead in Pakistan. Telex has been declared on the brink of death since the mid-1980s, but it's still in use elsewhere. The same is true for other supposedly dead technologies. For example, a few carriers like Equant still offer X.25 services to MNCs. Why‾ Because some of them have branch offices in developing markets where X.25 is still the most reliable data connection available. Even paging networks still exist for areas undeserved by cellular and niche markets like emergency services and irrigation control systems.

The point is that old technologies don't always die. Sure, some do, whether via market evolution or an absolute lack of demand. And those that don't often hang by a thread or are subsidized by newer technologies. But they survive.

Some of them even manage to adapt themselves to the new world. For example, fax was supposed to have been killed off by email, but we can still send faxes over IP from PCs. EasyLink offers a similar service for telex users.

Admittedly, these are also technologies that have had anywhere from 20 to 100 years to build up a legacy customer base that's become dependent enough on it to create a modicum of demand. Wi-Fi, WiMAX and 3G should be so lucky. On the other hand, in the coming era of convergence where all access technologies will eventually run off a unified IP core, building out a network using whatever access technology suits a given service area is more economically feasible than building separate expensive networks for each technology.

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