Tag Archives: Bell Labs

Tried to replace the PSTN lately?

A great challenge for the current US wireline telephone companies is how to replace the voice telephone network (aka Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN), build up over 80+ years by the Bell System and its progeny. Same concern applies to the cable companies that built their own version of voice service networks over the past 20 years. Though these have different origins, they share the issue of technology obsolesce (with increasing risk of outages, and higher on-going expenses), all while voice revenues are declining; making the business case for replacement extremely difficult. Over the past 29 years I’ve seen multiple attempts at replacement strategies and many different business justifications.

I had someone argue the first “PSTN replacement” was actually the installation of the SS7 network during the 1980s, which removed inter-office signaling from in-band (where it could be and was hacked!) to an out-of-band separate data network using X.25 technology (actually SS6 did this first, but was not fully deployed). If so, then this was the last “successful” replacement! Every attempt I know of since then has ‘failed’. First there was Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), which had a strong start in the late 80s, but has only had long-term success at the interface between public and private switches (PBXs). The residential form of ISDN, known as the Basic Rate Interface (BRI), re-used the existing twisted pair of cooper wires, yet was capable of carrying two digital voice channels and a very low bandwidth 16kbps switched data channel (2B+D). The voice channels could alternatively be used for 56kbps data as well. At the time there were no browsers, no webservers; mostly just FTP, email and private BBSs.  This was long before the World Wide Web became the runaway application of the Internet. In the 90s when the WWW came to be, ISDN BRI was not up that task and was quickly forgotten.

A really massive attempt to replace the PSTN was the Pacific Bell Consumer Broadband Network, which I was involved in from 1993-1996. The plan was to supply 500,000 homes in California (and elsewhere) a combination of voice, data and TV services, based on an exciting (to me, the engineer) mix of technologies from the telco world, but using cable’s hybrid fiber coax architecture. The big issue, though, was that it required running new fiber to each neighborhood and new cable drops to each of those houses. All that digging up of streets, or even stringing aerial, is disruptive and expensive. Being California, there were regulatory issues too (this was pre Telecom Act of 1996). But the final nail was when the Internet started to become a big deal [remember those dialup 56kbps modems?], but the data capabilities were based on ISDN…so this one failed too.

Not long after that the cable industry started deploying broadband cable modems to carry IP-based data, and the telcos followed with Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) services (and later, with IPTV using an upgraded DSL service). The key for both of these was that the implementation was scalable and an incremental overlay on the existing networks (coax or twisted pair), rather than a voice network replacement. No massive digging up of the neighborhoods. Well…, except for Verizon’s FiOS where the fiber is brought to every house directly using PON technology. That’s still a lot of digging, and a lot of expense to put electronics with a backup battery in every home. And so, having already deployed its most economical neighborhoods, Verizon has discontinued any further plans to grow the FiOS coverage areas. Interestingly though, FiOS still carries voice services via the same old Class 4/5 POTS switches in use since the late 1970s and 80s [their plans for IMS still pending].

Most recently? Look at the offer from Verizon Wireless (and AT&T also) to have the wireless network provide voice connectivity for your home phonesets, for only $20/month (on par or cheaper than most basic wireline services), … added to your existing mobile smartphone service, of course.

So what are the takeaways here?

  1. The Bell System (R&D by Bell Labs) did many things well. And that equipment has lasted. Yet, I also have to say, that won’t carry the telcos much longer…
  2. Data has been a growing theme in all these network changes. It’s clear that data (with video via that data) service is now the primary residential service. Not voice, nor linear TV. [It’s also clear that Bell Labs was spectacularly not good a predicting consumer demand for data services!]
  3. Incremental change is a lot easier than wholesale replacement, both in technology and economically. Don’t try to shallow the whole thing in one gulp; cut it up into smaller chucks, especially ones that can be justified in other ways…
  4. Mobile networks are taking over… at least for the 98ish% of the US population area where 4G will be fully built out. [And I didn’t discuss VoIP, except via implication…]
  5. Economically, it’s all about the bundle!, regardless of whether measured in lines, ARPU or RGU!
  6. And lastly, it’s also about moving away from heavily regulated domains [but we’ll save deeper discussion of that topic for a future post].


Solar 2013

I attended my first annual conference of the American Solar Energy Society in Baltimore last week. The ASES conference was a roller coaster of emotions and learning for me…

Overall, I see ASES as a strange (but I think healthy) mix of academics, industry and advocacy. I got the clear impression that the technical papers and academic presentations are the core of ASES (and you can see this in their excellent publication, Solar Today). The engineer in me loved these talks, but I was there representing the Kentucky chapter, and therefore I found myself most aligned with the advocacy side. A real insight I gained was how much the US solar industry is suffering, even while installations are booming! In Asia and Europe, where government policies for clean energy are clear and incentivizing rapid increased production, their engineering and manufacturing have already ramped up. With such a large increase in global supply, even with increased demand, prices for solar system components (mostly for PV) have declined by >60% over the past three years. As a result there are relatively few remaining manufacturers here in the US, even though the solar cell was originally invented at Bell Labs (59 years ago this month, and the same year ASES was established). Certainly there are some very innovative US solar companies, and some segments are doing well, such as in financing, monitoring, mounting & racking, and of course local installers. It is mostly the local installers who have created the boom in solar jobs – over 119,000 US jobs and growing at 13% annually. And solar advocacy is likely a primary cause of this, mainly through state by state legislative policy changes, known as an RPS, that require electric utilities to acquire and distribute energy from renewable sources, rather than their historical default of fossil fuels that release carbon and other pollutants into our atmosphere. This was highlighted in an excellent presentation by Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.


You’ll notice that KY is not one of the 29+ states with an RPS. It’s a hard politically when ~93% of KY’s electricity is produced by burning coal and current electricity rates are 5 to 9 cents per kwhr. But the really scary news is that these very successful policies are now under threat of being reversed by the fossil fuel industry and climate deniers. This is hugely depressing, as has been our efforts in KY to move toward greater sustainability. It was also sad to hear how ASES itself is struggling financially, and that just when national support for advocacy is needed, it may not be in a position to help (there are some positives).

OTOH, I was greatly inspired by many of the people of ASES, lots of highly intelligent and motivated individuals, both the old-timers [thanks to many for sharing your insights and time with me last week] and the many young professionals now driving us forward. The breadth of success stories and innovation in passive, thermal, transportation, modeling, as well as in PV is exciting to me. I found the huge accomplishment of solar in Germany (with about the same solar resource as Alaska) to be inspiring and evidence of what humankind can achieve when there is consensus for action. I also enjoyed the Skype™ presentation by Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of 350.org. Yet also I am troubled by his stark testimony on the lack of consensus here in the US of A – having to be arrested to bring public attention to the issue of climate change seems so last century…

So, taking advantage of my recent efforts to make this blog more visible and interactive [porting to WordPress was another cause for no new posts last week, sorry], I open the floor to all of you. What do you think of solar energy? Why have we not made much progress? Will we soon? What actions have you taken? Or what’s keeping you from taking action? Please let me know your thoughts.180px-Buerstädter_sonnensegel

And remember: when there’s a fuel spill of solar energy,..
it’s called a Sunny Day!  – Jack

Do you GIS?

I have come to the belief that Geographical Information System (GIS) is the next Excel – i.e. a tool that will become indispensable in everyday life, and most especially to an engineer.

My first exposure to GIS was in the mid-1990s. On a project for PacBell (now AT&T, again), we were building a revolutionary new, fully integrated Operational Support System (OSS) for their ‘new’ network that was going to replace POTS throughout California (I’ll write more about that project sometime soon). But we didn’t get very far with GIS then. A decade later, when Mary Anne was hired to teach Environmental Science at Ramapo College, one of the courses they wanted her for was GIS. She didn’t know much at the time, but with her background in CompSci, she dived in and learned it. She’s been teaching it semi-regularly for nearly 10 years, and continues to do so now at Georgetown. Last year, while on the Wi-Fi project that I mentioned last week, a super talented RF Engineer on the project came up with an analysis methodology using GIS tools. It is a really powerful way to analyze lots of data (and present it geographically), and greatly helped our clients to decide where and how much to build out their networks. I have always been intrigued, but never had the time to learn GIS myself – that is, until now.

I have had a great deal of fun these past 8 weeks, following along on some of the projects Mary Anne’s students are doing this semester (e.g. tromping through a remediated wetlands with a GPS recorder), plus diving into the textbook that she teaches from. I’ve learned a great deal, though somewhat specific to ArcGIS version 10 from ESRI, the company that has most commercialized GIS technology (and is still privately held!). If you’re interested, I recommend “Understanding GIS – An ArcGIS Project Workbook” by Harder, Ormsby and Balstrøm, and published by ESRI. They include a DVD of the software with a limited license and a reasonably complex project to work on over its 9 chapters. It includes discussion of the ‘fun’ parts of any technology project, such as uncertain or changing customer requirements (noooo, I’ve never had that challenge), how to make an analysis easily repeatable and flexible, and even a whole chapter on creating the presentation with the results of analysis. It is a little overly scripted for me, but that likely makes it easier to teach to a general audience (without a computer software background).

When I was a young engineer and anxious to get that first promotion, I looked closely at what others were doing when they got promoted. In those days, business skills were still rare in Bell Labs/AT&T Network Systems, and were ever more important than prior to the 1984 Divestiture. So I focused on developing those more (a.k.a. I turned to the ‘dark side’). For me, that included a rotational program into our sales force (more about that sometime, too), and then coming back to a role in product management. It was there, that I first started using Excel regularly. I developed spreadsheets to track our budget verses actual expenses, our software R&D capitalization/amortization schedule, another for our sales opportunity funnel and revenues, and then put it all together in a product-specific income statement. At the time my peer product managers had no similar insights into these details, as very limited financial information was computerized (and mostly on mainframes). But I could run all kinds of ‘what-if’ business cases or probability assessments, and see the profitability impacts instantly. Since then I’ve used Excel for lots of non-financial things too: engineering performance modeling, net zero energy (NZE) analysis, requirements tracking, contact lists, uncountable charts for presentations, weather analysis, and even a game or two. In 1992, I got that first promotion, and I have always attributed it to my abilities with Excel, bridging technology with business skills. But now that I’m learning GIS, I am wondering, how does an independent consultant earn a promotion…? 😉

Another story of my naivety

I started work for Bell Labs in May 1984 at Whippany a very naïve 21 year old. My first officemate was an older lady named Martha, who had survived the male dominated culture there for decades before I showed up, had been programming in C since the language existed and had only recently been promoted to the title of Member of Technical Staff (MTS), which I had been given on Day 1. I was (I thought) a hotshot computer programmer, ready to take on the real world (or at least all of telecom)!  Our boss, a gentleman also named Jack, was an orthodox Jew (with which I had no prior experience what so ever), had just recently been promoted to supervisor, but had huge patience and the fabulously rare skill (including, most of all, in me) of listening before speaking. His boss and the head of Artificial Intelligence Systems Department was a noble woman named Fran, who also had long fought and succeeded in the Bell Labs culture. Yet, unlike some other executives that I would work with, Fran ran her department with a soft and steady hand.

I remember a conversation with Jack in his office sometime after I had been there for more than a few months, where we were talking about the naming of things. Not material things, but like the names of work projects, and software modules, etc. I don’t remember the specifics of this conversation, but I do remember making the most ridiculous complaint that we should only be using the word “program” when meaning to refer to software code. And that using “program” to mean a work project or series of projects was too confusing. I was so naïve! Yet, Jack took my ‘suggestion’ without judgment or saying anything of what he must have been thinking…

Later when I had other bosses, I figured out quickly how much of a good thing I had in those first few years. Martha took me under her wing and taught me how to survive and thrive in the corporate culture and coached me through the soft-side of things. Fran and Jack created a safe place to take risks and gave me opportunity after opportunity to perform. After some mildly successful projects, positive customer feedback, my participation in a one year rotational program onto one of our sales teams, and several years of significant experience, Fran was the one to promote me to supervisor (tech manager) before I turned 30 (the ‘test of success’ at the time). I grew, was less naïve and definitely learned a lot during the time I associated with the AI Systems Department and all the very smart people there. But from Martha, Jack and Fran, what I learned most, was how to work with people, of all types, as well as upwards and across management. You made me a better person! Thank you! And I am certain that those that later worked for and with me have also benefited greatly! Doubly thank you!

To all my friends and co-workers at Alcatel-Lucent

My last working day at ALU was Thursday, February 7th. And, yes, this is my “good bye” letter… I’ve read my share of these before too, so I’ll try not to ramble!

I am proud and humbled to have been a part of Bell Labs, AT&T, Lucent, Octel, and Alcatel-Lucent for nearly 29 years! I’ve worked in large variety of roles and organizations over that time, and I have grown and learned so much. I enjoyed nearly all of it, and entirely because of all the interesting and intelligent people here. Though I have had the opportunity to know only a few of you well, ALL of you, collectively and individually, have made this place a wonderful and most difficult place to leave! [Yes, I know, LOL, given the huge numbers of people who have already left and are continuing to do so…]. Nevertheless, this is the right time for me to move on; officially my ‘retirement’. But I eventually hope to take yet a new role, in some new organization. At this time I have no concrete idea where (or when) that will be, but I’m excited about taking such a risk and the new possibilities that will come. Thank you all!

One brief story, that I can’t resist telling of my earliest times in the company:
I had my job interview with Bell Laboratories in New Jersey on January 2nd and 3rd, 1984 (yes, the first couple of days after the huge Bell System divestiture took effect). I had just turned 21 years old, and was a college senior from the small southern university town of Clemson SC, and NJ was a different kind of a place! I was fortunate that when I was still a toddler, my father had worked part time at Bell Labs in Holmdel NJ, while attending Rutgers for his MSEE, prior to serving fulltime in the US Army for his ROTC scholarship commitment, (and later also a four year stint at Bell Labs in Greensboro NC) and that he had kept up some of those connections. Those connections (and I hope perhaps my good grades and some already applicable work experience) meant that Bell Labs was willing to interview me, whereas otherwise they would not normally been recruiting from Clemson.

My first set of interviews were in Whippany NJ (where later I would start my employment in May’84), but for the second day I was driven via limo down to the Holmdel building (an hour trip). I don’t remember much about the trip nor the driver, except for two things… First, the huge six lanes of road in EACH direction!, called the ‘Garden State Parkway’ [lots and lots of times spend there! – yes, that’s humor!]. This was definitely new and different from mostly rural SC. And second as we entered the Holmdel property, just past the huge transistor-shaped water tower (really more like a War of the Worlds Martian war-machine) and approaching the 6 story black-glass building that is nearly a quarter mile from end to end… the limo driver said of the building, with its five vertical rows of concrete balconies stretching the whole length of the building interior overlooking the long atrium, that it reminded him of a penitentiary. Well, I had never been in a prison, but yes I saw the resemblance to movie versions as soon as I walked in the front door that day. And that image has stuck with me ever since, including when my office was on the fifth floor there for 4+ years in the 1990s. Yet, I have to say working there and elsewhere in this company has never, ever, felt like a prison. Just the opposite! I always felt empowered by (most of) my bosses to work on things that were exciting and dynamic, to take risks, and to be free-minded about the how my work would be performed and the results it would derive. And fortunately we never had to fight a war with a Martian water tower!