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Major innovation in telecommunications has always depended on the industry’s ability to make major architectural shifts. Telecommunications networks are large, complex systems

Major innovation in telecommunications has always depended on the industry’s ability to make major architectural shifts. Telecommunications networks are large, complex systems
whose reliability, security, and evolvability are dependent on the development of coherent and well-conceived architectural concepts. Historical examples within the public telephone network of such major architectural shifts include direct-distance dialing, digital transmission and switching, and the incorporation of cellular telephony into the public telephone network. The Internet is another example of a major architectural advance, one made possible by a multiyear research effort funded by the federal government for the first couple of decades (largely on behalf of military and internal research applications).

Will future advances of this magnitude be more difficult to achieve in today’s environment, particularly in the United States? The situation now is more dynamic than in the Bell System days, involving more competition and more opportunities for creative new ideas. Today, however, multiple vendors’ products are used to configure U.S. telecommunications infrastructure and deliver services, and multiple service providers (and thus even more vendors) are involved in delivering services that cross provider boundaries. As a result of the industry’s shift to a horizontal structure and its fragmentation into a large number of firms, neither vendors nor service providers are prepared to take responsibility for end-to-end systems design.

No single vendor can now drive architectural change in the same way that ATT was able to do in the past. Telecommunications vendors are able to make incremental improvements within existing frameworks, but major advances in system architecture or services may be more difficult, and innovation in services and applications may become constrained by continued reliance on obsolete network architectures. Also, what solutions are developed and deployed may be unnecessarily complex, fragile, and vulnerable because of too little investment in architectural work.

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