Boosting long-term telecom research subject of new debate as industry crisis lingers

Guest Contributor
June 23, 2003

The crushing financial downturn that is crippling the telecommunications industry has researchers on both sides of the Canada-US border calling for increased public support of fundamental research to ensure continued innovation and economic growth. In the US, a distinguished group of US researchers and managers are calling for public funding to support long-term research. The organizer of the May 23 workshop on Telecommunication Fundamental Research says what’s required is a national communications laboratory patterned after the legendary Bell Laboratories.

The concept would see a facility of approximately 1,200 researchers supported by $300 million annually, derived from a 3% excise tax on the industry. There’s growing consensus that a publicly funded telecom lab is essential to fill the yawning gap in basic research left by the demise of Bell Labs, the fragmentation of the sector and the more recent financial woes that have steered the industry further towards applied research.

“There’s a consensus that there is a problem and that federal government support is going to be needed. The only way to stay ahead is through technological leadership and innovation,” says Dr Michael Noll, workshop organizer and a professor with the Annenberg School for Communication at the Univ of Southern California. “A national lab would look more to the edge because the periphery of the network is where attention should be placed. Local distribution over optical fibre and homeland security could also be research areas, as well as some old ideas like vocoders and speech recognition.”

Such a facility could have a profound impact on Canada, both in terms of policy direction and new funding to address the chronically low levels of fundamental telecom research currently being conducted. Basic telecom research is conducted at various universities but that has dipped with the demise last year of the Canadian Institute for Telecommunications Research (CITR). Other communications laboratories such as TR Labs, the National Research Council and the Communications Research Centre (CRC) tend to focus more on applied research in the short-to-medium range.

That shorter term focus is predominant partly because Canada has historically followed the US telecom lead. Canadian experts say this country has deftly exploited technologies stemming from US discoveries, but that reliance may not be adequate for future needs.

“The reality of the research environment has changed dramatically so there will be an increased reliance on research in the public space,” says Dr Robert Crawhall, a former Nortel research executive and president of the Ottawa-based National Capital Institute of Telecommunications (NCIT). “Government has to recognize the change in environment, be sensitive to the shift in commercialization dynamics and react accordingly … The (US workshop) report serves as a reminder that you can’t forget about the telecom sector as it’s an important part of the innovation strategy.”

There’s no denying the severity of the downturn the telecom sector finds itself in. According to the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI), the global industry has accumulated more than US$1 trillion in debt and stock values have declined by $4 trillion.

In the US, the industry has shed more than 130,000 jobs and stock market capitalization has plummeted $1 trillion. Concern is so widespread that CITI — one of 15 academic centres for industrial research funded by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation — organized a series of 23 workshops on various aspects of the crisis facing telecom. The New York workshop in May was one in the series, which culminates in a final report this September and a public conference October 3 in New York City.


The scale of the devastation in Canada is far smaller, but likely no less severe. The workforce of Nortel Networks Corp — Canada’s flagship telecom equipment manufacturer — is about one third of its historic high three years ago and its R&D personnel has experienced massive shrinkage. Ottawa — the R&D anchor for the Brampton ON-based firm — has seen the company’s local staff drop from 15,000 to 6,000.

Organizations like NCIT and CRC are attempting to assist the telecom industry by stimulating collaborative research between industry, government and academia, but their activities don’t address the need for more basic research.

“In the early days, it was a world that talked through a black phone with a focus on the network. In telecom there’s now a much more edge-oriented approach, a more human side that is as much about sociology as it is about physics. The US workshop reminds us of what we have lost,” says Crawhall. “It would be useful to have a national dialogue on what telecom means to this country. It’s a much more complex and interesting process going forward.”

The US workshop hopes to raise the profile of fundamental research, but some observers contend that participants displayed a nostalgic desire to turn back the clock to when Bell Labs was the global telecom king.

“When you look at the discoveries and innovations that came out Bell Labs over a 60- or 70-year period, the list is incredible. Almost everything that matters in telecom came from that lab. The workshop sounded like a longing for the old times,” says Dr Maier Blostein, founding president of CITR, a former researcher at Bell Northern Research and a professor emeritus at McGill Univ. “Canada is in a different position. The US thinks in terms of ‘we’re the best in the world and will lead the world’. We don’t have that perspective so our solution might be easier than theirs.”

Blostein says that while the important areas of telecom research are constantly shifting, it’s evident that future research won’t have the same fundamental character as the last half of the 20th century. He says a government or industry-driven lab would have major drawbacks and contends that academic research could provide the necessary research base for future development and growth.

“CITR with a little more beef could play a role in keeping Canada at the forefront. We should put resources in the universities and trust researchers to do what is best.”

Both Crawhall and Blostein say the recent trend towards research programs requiring industry cash and in-kind won’t work if Canada wants to boost fundamental telecom research .

“The nature of Canadian research funding that requires industrial matching keeps the timeframe shorter,” says Crawhall. “It’s an intentional policy and it makes sense in an industrial context. But freeing up money to allow people to go out and be crazy is not a bad thing and that’s not only for telecommunications.”

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