Twenty years and change

John C Tanner
Telecom Asia

A lot can happen in 20 years. And that seems especially true in the telecommunications business, which was naturally a much different beast in 1990 than it is in 2010.

A glance through the debut issue of Telecom Asia - which opened for business in April 1990 as an offshoot of US-based magazine TE&M (Telephone Engineer & Management, which changed its name to America's Network in 1994) - makes that all too clear. Articles in that issue range from Taiwan's plans to digitize its network and tips on how to sell equipment and services in Asian markets (the secret is knowing your customers, apparently) to technical advice on how to integrate a digital loop carrier into your network without wrecking the installed base an potential DS3 compatibility issues as carriers start looking at an up-and-coming new technology for moving digital data across fiber networks called Sonet. (Perhaps you've heard of it.)

It's been the ultimate long, strange trip since then - the Asian telecoms sector has weathered numerous economic storms (the 1997 Asian meltdown, the bandwidth bubble bust, the dotcom bubble bust, the 2009 global meltdown, market liberalization in general) and has had its old POTS business model yanked out from under it with the rise of IP, Web 2.0 and Skype. Not to put to fine a point on it, last month Arbor Networks declared Google - a company that didn't even exist 20 years ago - to be the world's third largest and fastest growing ISP in terms of interdomain IP traffic.

But you knew that.

What's striking, though, is that in some ways, if you take a high-level view, the state of Asian telecoms in 2010 isn't all that different from 1990. We've boiled it down to three basic trends that differ in the details, but still apply to both periods: the role of government in telecoms, the role of telecoms as a driver of economic growth and a major shift in legacy infrastructure toward the next generation of technology.

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THEN: One of the biggest issues facing Asia's telecoms markets at the start of the 1990s was competition, or lack thereof. At the time, monopolies ruled the telecoms landscape (even in the US, the breakup of private monopoly telco AT&T had occurred a mere six years earlier, and even then it was simply separated into regional monopolies), and most were government-owned, often to the point of being a service arm of the local communications ministry.

An example is Taiwan, profiled in the first issue of TA. Twenty years ago, Chunghwa Telecom as we know it didn't exist. It was known as the DGT (Directorate General of Telecommunications) and functioned as the telecoms arm of the Ministry of Communications. In 1990, Taiwan was making its first moves toward liberalizing the telecoms sector, with plans to allow the private sector to provide Type II services (namely CPE and value-added services like email, voice store and forward, and data storage and retrieval) by the end of the year.

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