The telecommunication research crisis

A 2006 report of the National Research Council documents the crisis in telecommunication fundamental (or basic) research (here). The report is the result of a study chaired by Dr. Robert W. Lucky to determine the effects of the various Bell breakups on basic research in telecommunications - and it is a sad situation with big decreases in spending and increased emphases on short-term results. The report suggests a new governmental agency to coordinate industrial and academic research in telecommunications.

Innovation and discovery come from individuals - not from government coordination and centralized planning. What is needed is an environment to support and encourage creative individuals, while also stimulating them with the problems of industry and the real world. While research at academic institutions serves useful theoretical purposes, research at industrial labs is different because of its coupling to practical realities and the mission of industry. The optimum environment for such industrial research assures stable long-term funding with the freedom to take chances and explore the unknown while also serving a broader mission, such as to assure the future of telecommunication in the United States.

Industry needs to be stimulated to support basic research at its own labs - just as in the days of the old Bell System when the local telephone companies supported research at Bell Labs. But with the various breakups of the Bell System, research was the victim. The research component of today's Bell Labs is supported by Lucent Technologies and is a thin shell of the past. The only other research remaining from the old Bell System is performed at AT&T's Shannon Laboratories, and it too has been significantly reduced over the years. What this means is that without the illumination of long-term research the telecommunication industry in the United States is nearly blind as to its scientific and technological future.

It is difficult to document the crisis since it is impossible to know what is not being discovered. But from the past, we know that unexpected discoveries do occur - and quite regularly - such as Shannon's information theory, the transistor, negative feedback, the solar cell, the electric microphone, polyethylene sheathing of telephone cables, to name but a small few. Entire new areas of scientific inquiry have come from the research at Bell Labs, such as solid-state physics, radio astronomy, and speech processing.

Clearly, management must want research - it cannot be forced upon a company. But the broader national welfare gives government a responsibility to assure that adequate industrial research is occurring, particularly in telecommunication, which has been so restructured and fragmented because of national policies. A carrot and stick approach might thus be warranted to make the "want" occur. The carrot might be the availability of Federal support from such sources as spectrum auctions or the universal service fund. The stick might be a condition imposed to obtain approval of restructuring, such as any future acquisitions. Another carrot might be assured long-term tax credits for research, subject to government oversight to be assured that the effort is truly basic research with the direction of the work being defined by the researchers themselves.

Research in services has always been a tricky topic. Today telecommunication is all about services - not products. Although fragmentation occurred, the telecommunication service industry is dominated by a handful of suppliers, such as Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner. If one is a dominant provider, then contributing back to the basket of knowledge through the support of basic research is a responsibility that should come with dominance. It would be far better for these companies to accept this responsibility than for government to create new bureaucracies to coordinate research.

A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus of Communications at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. His professional career began at Bell Labs in the early 1960s where he performed research in speech processing and computer graphics.