A retrospective on the Butler Cox Foundation July 1989 paper:

“ Pan-European Communications: Threats and Opportunities”

By Jim Norton

The context

There are few things more frightening than being asked to comment on a paper that you authored more than thirty years ago in a field as fast-moving as Pan-European Communications…! The Butler Cox paper was set in a period of massive change:

  • The Single European Market (of just 12 States). This was planned for 1992 leading to major economic change and the distribution of corporate functions across national boundaries (R&D in France, Manufacturing in Germany, Warehousing in the Netherlands…) and would drive a surge in trans-national communications demand.
  • Telecommunications deregulation. This was accelerating across Europe, albeit with some smaller States desperate to obtain derogations to stand against the tide and “protect” their incumbent national providers.  It was increasingly difficult to regulate by service type (how do you tell which ‘bit’ is a data bit, which voice, which video…).
  • Skills shortage. (What else is new!).  A desperate shortage of skills in the new digital areas impeding in-house private distributed information systems solutions for major corporates.
  • Vendors moving from selling one off ‘products’ to selling ‘services’ with attractive recuring revenues.  This driven by extensive commoditisation of communications components with historic high margins driven through the floor.

What did the report get right?

Within its timeframe (looking just five years ahead to 1994), the report accurately predicted:

  • Major customer demand for transnational managed digital services, characterised by single points for account management and fault reporting, plus multilingual help facilities and flexible accounting.
  • The rise of ‘systems integrators’ notably from the computing and information systems industries, filling the gaps left by specific skills shortages.
  • The regulatory transition from ‘data’ services to fully ‘digital’ services, agnostic to the content carried.
  • The inability of the traditional national public operators to come together to address fully these new markets, riven by sales channel conflict, lack of trust and national rivalry, plus a continuing focus of circuit rather than packet switching. These failures opened the opportunity for new entrants and novel technical solutions.

What did the report totally miss?

The inexorable rise of the Internet.  Despite having highlighted the growing opportunities, the report entirely missed the potential for Internet Protocol (IP) to displace the public operator data solutions based around the CCITT ‘X Series’ standards.  Albeit this happened on a rather longer timescale, much of the demand for hybrid (public-private), shared and virtual networks was met through the growth of the Internet and ultimately Cloud Computing.  In 1989 the Internet was still very much a network of networks linking academic and research institutions and was rather ignored by the incumbent national operators and traditional telecoms. manufacturers.  In the end Vint Cerf and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) won the standards battle hands down, aided subsequently by the development of the browser and the World Wide Web.

Mobility with everything.  The report also failed to recognise the implications of mobile data.  That is perhaps less surprising, as only analogue cellular phones (typically Motorola Bricks) were available.  The first second generation digital deployments (GSM) were not until 1991 and we had to wait until 2007 for the iPhone.  It now seems an article of faith that anything done from a fixed location will ultimately need to be delivered with complete mobility.  Only now are we starting to see the implications for example of ‘The Internet of Things” (IoT)

Demand for online access to video resources.  At the end of the 1980s, data network bandwidth struggled to achieve two Mbits/sec on specially conditioned private circuits.  30Mbits/sec (or even 1 Gbit/sec) to individual homes on local loops was simply neither conceivable or practical with the technology horizons of the time

In conclusion

It is sobering to look back at just how much radical change has taken place over thirty years and perhaps even more exciting to contemplate the change inevitable over the next thirty…

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