Business strategy consultant Steven Domb explains how our 100-year-old telecoms network can survive the 21st century
I hate BT. I have hated BT for years. It's not that I think it is bad (it isn't), it's not that I think it gives bad service it doesn't), it's not that I think it charges to much (I don't). I hate BT because I know what it could have done in the past 20 years to improve my life and my children's education, but as far as I am concerned it has singularly failed to do.
What I'm on about here is the local loop, the last mile. Call it what you will, it is the bit that connects your home or business to the communications backbone running across the UK and around the world.
Right now, it's the thing that is stopping us from communicating the way that we are designed to, and it's been stopping us for the last 20 years. Without getting all technical, let me explain why.
There are two ways of looking at Alexander Graham Bell's great invention, on the one hand he extended the distance that we can speak and listen from a few yards to thousands of miles, on the other hand he blinded us all. Think about it, 70% of human communication is visual, not verbal. Our eyes are the most powerful sense that we use for learning. But pictures are big things, much bigger than the laws of physics allow to be passed along the telephone lines that evolved from Bell's brilliance, at least not in the quantity and quality that human society needs. I sometimes wonder what the local loop would look like if John Logie Baird had been born first.
I know all about ISDN and ADSL and the services that they can deliver. But these technologies were always designed around the concept of getting the maximum performance from the old long, thin copper wires that were already in use. They are not, and never will be good enough to deliver the kind of two way, high quality vision that humans have when they meet face to face. So I hate all those long-established equipment makers like Nortel, GPT, Siemens and Alcatel, because by making these technologies they are allowing the old phone companies to further extend the market life of their old wires, instead of getting on with replacing them with new technology. And I hate the regulators and standards committees who, by extolling the virtues of this inadequate concept, have legitimised this delay.
I used to love the cable companies. Not just because they paid my wages for nine years, but because they were digging up the streets and laying a wonderful fibre optic local loop, with short copper and coax links into peoples' homes. Which all means that with the right electronics, they could deliver everything that I ever dreamed of. But I don't love them at the moment, because instead of driving home their strategic advantage by pushing the manufacturers to make equipment that exploits these wonderful new cables, they play "me too" with BT by selling ISDN and ADSL, or they muck about with cable TV modems which also can't deliver what is really needed.
What makes it even worse for me, is I know that they have prototypes of the right kind of technology gathering dust in back rooms. It stays there because they think that this could be a concept too far for their shareholders, who have already made a multi-billion pound investment in our future.
So, BT, if you want me to love you, bite the bullet, give your shareholders the news that you need to invest heavily, stop blathering on about ADSL and other ideas, and start digging up the streets to give us all the network of the next 100 years, instead of leaving us with the network of the last 100 years. And to NTL and Telewest I say, stop playing "me too", explain how exploiting the differentiation in your local loop will bring big long-term rewards to your shareholders, and then get there before BT does, because I really want to love you again.
When I step away from technology, and consider how we all live, I believe that history will refer to the changes in telecommunications over the last decade in the same reverential tones that it talks about the Industrial Revolution. I also believe that the idea of having the best in human communications in our society is both a duty, and a right.
In a modern world that means having a telecommunications system that works the way humans are designed to, so I hate any telecommunications organisation that helps, directly or indirectly, to delay the laying of new infrastructure which can deliver the services I want. I think that they are stealing my birthright, and I want them to change their thinking and strategy now. And I love those companies that had the guts to invest in a new infrastructure because I think they have invested in my family's future, I just want them to invest all the way.