renewing u.s. telecommunications research

September 18th, 2007 by kc

as part of my interest in solving problems of the internet [as related to me by several dozen engineers of operational commercial Internet infrastructure], i pay attention to proposals to improve the conditions of telecommunications research, such as in april 2007 when a UCSD professor testified in front of the U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee about the results of a 2006 National Academy of Sciences workshop on Renewing U.S. Telecommunications Research. i looked inside the report for answers to the data sharing problem. i think they’re postponing that for later. instead i found these recommendations:

Our report’s first major recommendation reflected the view that a strong, effective telecommunications R&D program for the United States will require a greater role for government-sponsored and university research, and more funding of long-term research by industry.

To underscore the seriousness with which the study committee viewed the challenge, we made a bold recommendation, that the federal government establish a new research program with the objective of stimulating and coordinating research across industry, academia, and government. This proposed research program, called the Advanced Telecommunications Research Activity (ATRA), was envisioned as a hybrid of activities of the sort historically associated with DARPA (which through the ARPANET program managed a research portfolio, developed a vision, and convened industry and academia to build what would become the internet) and SEMATECH (which brought the semiconductor industry together, initially with some federal support to complement industry dollars, to fund joint research, development, and roadmapping activities).

[bizarre… i thought SEMATECH, and their other example EPRI, were examples of failures of industry-wide research consortiums.]

ATRA’s mission would be to (1) identify, coordinate, and fund telecommunications R&D, (2) foster major architectural advances, and (3) strengthen the U.S. telecommunications research capability. Key suggested steps for implementing ATRA are (1) establishment of mechanisms for carrying out project-based research; (2) establishment of advisory committees with high-level industry participation; (3) exploration of the need for R&D centers; and (4) establishment of a forum for key parties to discuss critical technology development, legal and policy issues.

the report also recommends that NSF, DARPA, and all segments of the U.S. telecommunications industry increase their support for fundamental research, using some entity like ATRA which would be significantly funded by industry as a way “to pool funds and other resources, spread risk, and share beneficial results.” the report mentions a drop in industry research participation but does not really discuss the measurement or data sharing problems. ironic, since the most legitimate justification for the need for an activity such as ATRA would be empirical data to support concerns about the characteristics and evolution of current telecommunication systems, especially the internet which seems to be catching on, but the committee, like scientists in general, does not have access to such data. i’m reminded of Licklider’s 1968 paper, “The Computer as a Communication Device”, which forty years ago acknowledged the cause of and proposed a cost-effective solution to “renewing telecommunications research”:

It is perhaps not surprising that there are incompatibilities between the requirements of computer systems and the services supplied by the common carriers, for most of the common-carrier services were developed in support of voice rather than digital communication. Nevertheless, the incompatibilities are frustrating. It appears that the best and quickest way to overcome them — and to move forward the development of interactive communities of geographically separated people– is to set up an experimental network of multiaccess computers. Computers would concentrate and interleave the concurrent, intermittent messages of many users and their programs so as to utilize wide-band transmission channels continuously and efficiently, with marked reduction in overall cost. [p.30]

..In the half-dozen communities, the computer systems research and development and the development of substantive applications mutually support each other. They are producing large and growing resources of programs, data, and know-how. But we have seen only the beginning. There is much more programming and data collection — and much more learning how to cooperate — to be done before the full potential of the concept can be realized. [p.31]

Plus ca change..

in the meantime, as more people worry about the core internet architecture reaching fundamental limits (running out of IPv4 addresses, routing system scalability limits which IPv6 will trigger, transport protocol performance in the face of vast ranges of link characteristics, insecure transactions to negotiate the routing (BGP) and naming (DNS) information), the question becomes more relevant each day: how do we effect innovation in the Internet core when we’ve chosen a policy framework that not only intentionally drives any profits available for innovation down to zero (go competition go!) but also pits the innovators in a competitive death match with the organizations they would need to cooperate with in order to innovate in the core?

the policy issues are harder than the technology issues, and yet again ignored in this report. so my guess is we will see a disaster that costs billions of dollars (noone’s counting spam, which easily costs billions of dollars a year, not counting the profit made by spammers.) before we see serious discussion of an ATRA-like activity. and then it would have to be framed internationally in order to be relevant.


Comments are closed.