The next wave in telecommunications

The next wave in telecommunications was standing on a subway platform in Boston this week when a billboard caught my eye. "In 1994," it said, "ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] seemed like a good idea. So did the macarena. ISDN is smart. DSL [digital subscriber line] is smarter." The billboard went on to describe dsl technology as "faster, affordable, and always on."

Jul 1st, 1999

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.

Group Editorial Director

The next wave in telecommunications was standing on a subway platform in Boston this week when a billboard caught my eye. "In 1994," it said, "ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] seemed like a good idea. So did the macarena. ISDN is smart. DSL [digital subscriber line] is smarter." The billboard went on to describe dsl technology as "faster, affordable, and always on."

What struck me about this advertising message was that it was on a subway- station billboard, not in a technical or business journal. We in the cabling industry frequently discuss the pros and cons of various access-networking technologies, but what do these technologies have to do with the man or woman on the street?

When you think about the personal-computer revolution as an analog to the current landscape in the telecommunications industry, the answer to this question becomes obvious. Early PCs were slow, cumbersome toys for electronics hobbyists. They didn`t have much mass appeal until Intel introduced "computerese" to the general public. When consumers started requesting 286s, 386s, 486s, and then Pentiums, it was clear that Intel had successfully branded the market, and the PC revolution was underway. Computers were no longer devices to be enclosed in glass rooms and run by white-coated technicians. They were the playthings of the people, devices just about everybody could discuss at least semi-intelligently.

That was the next wave for computers, and it is a decade behind us now. Today, we are on the verge of the next wave for telecommunications. The wave arrives when the nontechnical, consuming population begins to request from its telecommunications service providers such services as ISDN or DSL versus lower phone bills and call waiting.

When that happens, telephone companies and cable-TV providers will no longer be setting the technological agenda in telecommunications. Instead, suburbanites will be arguing over the back fence about whether Jones`s cable modem is better than Smith`s adsl setup. Consumers will demand more bandwidth, faster data rates, and better security in their communications products, just as today they are demanding faster processing speeds in their computing devices.

When the new wave in telecommunications breaks, those high-technology companies that cannot shift quickly from being technology-driven to being market-driven are likely to be left high and dry. Accustomed to dealing with network managers and telecommunications engineers, they will be uncomfortable communicating to the mass market. Advertising their products on network television (as Intel now does) will strike these companies as wasteful and off the mark.

But other companies, the shrewd marketeers, will learn the lesson the subway billboard taught me. They will advertise their technologies with clever slogans and promote the products that spring from them in simple language, and customers will start to ask service providers for them by name.

When that happens, all the high-tech discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of such protocols as isdn and adsl will be behind us. We`ll be selecting our telecommunications services on the basis of what we see on TV and in consumer-magazine ads--and perhaps trying to remember how to do the macarena.

PennWell acquires Caribbean telecom company

PennWell, the parent publishing company of Cabling Installation & Maintenance, announced this week that it has acquired Latcom, a 20-year-old, Miami-based company that owns and operates conferences and exhibitions in Latin America, including CaribeCom in Puerto Rico and CosCom in Costa Rica. According to PennWell chief executive Joe Wolking, these events are targeted at the telecommunications, information-technology, and energy markets. The acquisition, according to Wolking, "will provide PennWell`s Communications & Optoelectronics Group with a strong foothold in the Caribbean and Latin America, two of the most rapidly growing communications markets in the world."

arlynp@pennwell.com

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