Significant vision-setting and associated design work have also been carried out in particular sectors of the telecommunications industry. The cable industry developed a new architecture—hybrid fiber coaxial cable—that allowed delivery of digital, two-way services over its networks. The wireless industry is now well into the deployment of a third generation of cellular services (which exist in several different flavors), each of which has supported greater capacity in terms of users and bandwidth per user, and has involved broad thinking about desired capabilities and the technological advances required to achieve them. Such efforts are generally considered to have been successful within the confines of individual industry sectors, but they have not addressed major architectural issues across these sectors.

Although individual segments of the industry have successfully pursued the rollout of new services, such as second-generation cellular or hybrid fiber coaxial cable television, the United States today does not have processes or forums for defining or implementing broader (cross-sector) visions or for establishing how much and what types of research are needed.

The situation stands in contrast to that in some other regions of the world where institutions and processes are in place to define and implement telecommunications visions (see the section “International Support for Telecommunications Research and Development” in Chapter 2). There are, to be sure, strong arguments on both sides of the debate over the benefits of planned and structured technological programs versus unstructured ones in which many individual firms can attempt to develop their ideas. Nonetheless, it is worth exploring further the role that vision-setting activities could play in fostering future telecommunications advances.


A major shift occurred in telecommunications toward the end of the 20th century. A growing realization emerged that the PSTN was not an efficient and cost-effective way of moving large amounts of data over a network. The basic insight was that packet-based networks could statistically multiplex data (including real-time voice and video) over a best-effort data network and still achieve high performance, universal connectivity, and reliable data transport. The Internet, which is really just an interconnection of hundreds of thousands of such packet networks, has proved this idea on a wide scale and has become the model for telecommunications in the 21st century. This breakthrough arose in an environment in which DARPA leadership, vision setting, and funding allowed research, development, and early deployment and operation to be performed by a diverse yet small and tightly knit community in an environment relatively free of commercial concerns.

The promise of the Internet is the ability to bring unlimited bandwidth and computational power to every home, office, and even to individuals who are highly mobile, thereby enabling people to remain in constant contact with other people and with information of virtually any form. Hence one formulation of a big-vision problem for the 21st century would be something like “Universal Broadband Connectivity—Anywhere, Anytime.” But who will espouse this (or an appropriate alternative) vision, who will champion it through the regulatory and standardization bodies, who will invest in the necessary array of technologies, and who will work through the details associated with designing, implementing, and deploying products and services? In contrast to some other regions of the world (most notably Korea and Japan in Asia and various European nations), neither U.S. industry nor the U.S. government has a clearly defined, forward-looking vision for telecommunications, and more importantly, no process in

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