If someone tells you that they know what's happening in the telecommunications industry these days, the chances are that they deserve a sharp poke with a pointy stick*. The world's networks were already being described in the 1970s as being the most complex machine that man had ever built, and the last few years have only increased that complexity by a few orders of magnitude.
Imagine a speeded-up film of the earth from space. One single solitary telegraph line first appeared in 1843, stretching all of forty miles from Washington to Baltimore. Over the following decades, that fragile link grew into a web of cables and repeater stations, reaching across continents and oceans. Fast forward a century and a half, and the earth is now covered by a dense mesh of fibre, radio, satellite and copper networks. Regions, once dark and silent, are being rapidly filled in as the world goes mobile, adding a second billion onto those souls already glued to their handsets and screens.
But geographic reach alone only tells one part of the story. As we shift towards an all-IP world, drawing content and applications into the traditionally two-dimensional signalling framework of telecommunications, we're starting to approach biological levels of complexity -- and that's going to demand some serious changes in the ways that we perceive and plan our industry.
Chatting recently with Digitalk, one of the companies now bringing SIP -- that increasingly ubiquitous protocol -- firmly into the PSTN and voice services world, I started getting flashbacks to biology classes at school and all those wonderfully intricate diagrams of metabolic pathways.
Now, for an individual who did a degree in zoology and psychology before falling into networking, the fact that I should look for biological metaphors shouldn't really be surprising. What is perhaps surprising is that respectable academia is also now taking this route, but under the catchy title of 'Complex Adaptive Systems'.
Partly growing out of chaos theory, that pop science favourite of a while ago, a growing number of researchers around the world are looking at the subject of network behaviours -- but across a multitude of different areas. Google on the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and you'll find such apparently unrelated topics as economies, weather, embryological development and telecommunications coming together in fascinating ways.
All very interesting perhaps, but what's this got to do with profits in the increasingly Darwinian playground of a deregulated telecommunications industry ?
It's simply that nature's been doing for billions of years what we've now been doing for only a hundred or so -- and there should be some good tricks we can pick up. I sometimes deliberately annoy engineer friends by asking them if an individual bee knows that it's actually building a larger hive as it works on its own individual little cell -- each a masterpiece of optimised design. After I've picked myself up off the floor, they do, however, usually get what I mean, especially when I explain why the use of the word 'ecosystem' in all those endless marketing presentations is inappropriate. Anything that kicks marketing departments usually goes down well with engineers, I've found...
In an ecosystem, everything eats everything else. In reality, the world of networks is becoming much more like a super colony of very simple organisms - but with each starting to exchange the equivalent of genetic material with each other.
Consider the fraught relationship between content owners and network owners. Each needs the other -- but they're increasingly fighting the other for dominance of that growing space. What started off as an apparently symbiotic relationship now looks like moving to become parasitical for one of the parties.
Continuing the HR theme of my last column, we now need people who can rise above the raw silicon of the network and spot these shifts in power as they emerge. Talking recently with Daniel Osmer of telecom recruitment specialist, Spectrum-EHCS, he made the interesting comment that "some of the best sales directors we've seen hold degrees in Psychology -- it's their understanding of human behaviour and decision making processes. The industry though is still dominated by very traditional, risk averse hiring". n
*Unless they're Keith Willetts, of course.
Alun Lewis is a telecommunications writer and consultant. He can be contacted via: