How telecoms lost its magic - TechCentral

How telecoms lost its magic

Dave Gale

[By Dave Gale] I remember little of the 1960s. This has more to do with my date of birth than it does with my choice of Kool-Aid at the time. However, I do remember certain aspects of life that have changed so irrevocably that my kids look at me askance when I mention them.

Telephones were large, black Bakelite devices tethered in a strategic place in the home, and we shared a party line with five or six neighbouring farms. News arrived via new-fangled transistor “wireless” or newspapers collected weekly from the Post Office.

Comic books were prized possessions ordered by post. The two-way radio in my father’s bakkie was the state of the art in ubiquitous connectivity.

Back then telecommunications was boring. Copper wires and basketball court-sized rooms full of electromechanical switches enabled you to call someone. It was a big improvement over the telegraph equipment that preceded it, but was not “sjoe-wow” by any stretch of the imagination.

Today, 140 character newsflashes arrive on credit card sized telephones more common than wristwatches, more powerful than the Apollo 13 computer and mere seconds after the news breaks on the other side of the planet.

From my desktop, I communicate using text, voice and visuals with friends and colleagues, wherever they happen to be in the world. Comic books are a click away.

Despite this, telecoms is starting to bore me again. I can’t think of the last time I really got excited by a seriously innovative piece of telecoms technology. Ever since the advent of mobile telephony and voice over Internet Protocol (IP), there have been few really significant market disruptors.

Mobile broke the tether on the telephone handset. E-mail accelerated and relaxed the formal written missive. SMS and instant messaging brought a whole new communications “backchannel” to a multitasking generation.

IP became the unifying common denominator to all forms of telecoms. First voice over IP, then mobile voice over IP, subverted the electronic mint that voice communications had become. Smart phones are no longer the preserve of gadget freaks, and a phone without a browser is passé.

Gone are the days when the radical leap from 2400bps to 9600bps modems was life changing. It was then. Now tablet PCs threaten books and newspapers and wall-mount phones have been replaced with multipurpose pocket computers masquerading as phones.

Innovation has moved from the network to the handset, from protocols to applications, from technology to services.

It is the likes of the Apple iTunes Store and Nokia’s Comes With Music that now change the game. It is no longer really about technology. Though there is still frantic spending of dollars to be ahead of the curve, it is now about the content and the service.

If I have to name what has radically changed my telecoms user habits of late, it would be the likes of the iPhone, Evernote and Google Apps. The exciting stuff is no longer in the domain of Ericsson, Alcatel or Cisco. The really cool stuff is being done by the likes of Google and the many, many service and application providers.

Telecoms companies must just deliver data packets now, faster and more reliably. That’s all. Networks are plumbing and the more options you have for pipes, the less value they have. Yes, we do still see value in connectivity, but like power, we only notice it when it is not there.

Network operators must focus on becoming more efficient, more reliable and more affordable.

If they want to charge a premium, it needs to be for innovative services and applications that run on top of their networks, not for the network itself.

There’s nothing magical about basic telecoms anymore. It’s what we do with it that makes it cool.

  • Dave Gale is head of business development at Umoya Networks, a provider of VSat services and communications software

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