IF the decade of the 1980s belonged to the personal computer, then the 1990s surely belong to telecommunications.The telltale signs are there: applications from new entrepreneurs, a bewildering number of communications methods, and huge corporations waiting to capitalize on this chaotic industry. No one knows when - or even if - the market will explode. But there is growing consensus that the United States has to upgrade its communications network now in order to prepare for the new era. "It's like building a highway into the wilderness and hoping that businesses will follow," says Robert Lucky, executive director of AT&T Bell Laboratories. "They usually do." The next few years will provide tantalizing glimpses of what the new telecommunications highway might look like. Last month, Congress took an important first step in promoting the most visionary of the approaches. It passed the $2.9 billion High-Performance Computing Act, sponsored by Sen. Al Gore (D) of Tennessee. The plan would link government, university, and library computers in a National Research and Education Network or NREN. The NREN would be built on top of an existing network, the National Science Foundation's NSFNET. But it would be much faster. The NSFNET operates at 45 million bits per second. The new act calls for NREN to transmit data at 1 billion bits per second by 1996. Earlier this month, Bell Labs announced its own 2.5 billion-bit network (dubbed the "LuckyNet" for Dr. Lucky), which links three locations via optical fiber and microwave radio. Senator Gore calls NREN the "information superhighway" - a catalyst for what he hopes will become one day a national fiber-optic network. "The biggest impact would be on education and training," says Bill Norris, chairman emeritus of Control Data Corporation and a backer of the idea. "A fiber-optic nationwide network with access to everybody would put us back into the international forefront." The problem with fiber optics is that it's expensive. Some analysts estimate that linking every US household to a fiber-optic network would cost $3,000 apiece. The national tab would run at least $100 billion.
Cheaper alternative So, telecommunications companies and entrepreneurs and consumer groups are casting about for a cheaper and more immediate alternative. One of the most promising is Integrated Services Digital Network or ISDN. The appeal of ISDN is that it can deliver many benefits of fiber optics with only a modest upgrade of the existing telephone network (mostly new software and new digital phones). "It's a ways off before you get fiber to the home," says Jerry Berman, the incoming director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Washington office. "But a lot can be done with applying ISDN in the near term.... The issue is establishing the right conditions for that." The gain in speed and power would be significant. Today, for example, the typical computer user with a modem can dial into an information service and retrieve one page of text every eight seconds, Lucky says. ISDN would allow that same user to throw out his cumbersome modem and receive text 25 times faster - the equivalent of quickly leafing through a book, he says. That speed would allow companies to provide low-cost video-conferencing, high-quality fax, the sharing of voice and data on the same line, enhanced electronic shopping, and other as yet undreamed-of services. Eventually, ISDN could be replaced by broadband ISDN, which would require fiber optics and carry more material at much higher speeds. If regular ISDN allows users to leaf through a book, Lucky says, broadband ISDN would let viewers riffle through a full-color National Geographic. That, in turn, would make it feasible for consumers to wander electronically through, say, the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Institution.
Anticipating entrepreneurs ISDN supporters believe that entrepreneurs will come out of the woodwork to develop new applications when an ISDN network comes on line. They believe that a few of these applications will become so popular that businesses and maybe even consumers will sign up for ISDN service. That's what happened with the personal computer a decade ago. Once businessmen and women discovered the value of electronic spreadsheet software, they flocked en masse to buy the machines that could run them. Of course, ISDN is just one of several computer systems that various industries are touting. While telephone companies push the idea of fiber-optics, cable television and even wireless communication companies are investigating other ideas. Already, telephone companies - newly liberated from regulatory restraints - are experimenting with audiotext and videotext services. Entrepreneurs are playing with a hand-held telephone technology called personal communication services, which would compete with cellular phones.
Portable offices The cellular-phone companies are looking into wireless offices and stores, where desks and cash registers could be moved at will. There's much speculation about which technology will win. In reality, all these industries probably will play some role in the next generation of telecommunications services. "There probably would be and should be technology agreements and sharing among many of the media," says Peggy Laramie, a spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Association. In one sense, the implications of the new era are clearer than its details. "This is something very much like the car," Lucky says. "The car sort of gave you the suburbs." The new generation of telecommunications services will continue that spread.