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The essential role of hype

Jun 22, 20044 mins
Telecommunications IndustryVoIPWi-Fi

Since the loud pop that was the telecom bubble bursting, service providers and equipment vendors alike have attempted to shy away from hyperbole surrounding future services and products. For many reasons, including the fear of Wall Street repercussions, the industry spent a good two years in official mourning for its previous self.

But like any period of mourning, this one has past, and we’re starting to see the hype engines revving up again – but not necessarily in a bad way.

Take VoIP – if you dare. It shows up on a regular basis in press releases from service providers, hardware and software providers. Does that mean that every service provider is going to have a tariffed VoIP service ubiquitously available by the fourth quarter? Of course not.

What it does mean is that leading service providers are making this available today to leading edge customers, but the real change is still months, even years down the road.

Without the hype of VoIP, however, customers don’t become aware of technology changes poised to affect the service provider networks, and therefore don’t get a chance to weigh in with their expectations. It is this give and take process between service providers and their customers that ultimately produces marketing and field trials to shape the ultimate service.

When BellSouth announced its two-city VoIP deployment a couple of weeks back, officials clearly stated that they didn’t expect a mad rush to the service for some very well-documented reasons.

First, it costs money to change out telephones across an enterprise. So the initial leap into network-based or premises-based VoIP service is often going to be tied into an event – a new headquarters, expansion, a merger, a move – that already precipitates change and associated expenses.

Second, there are other ramifications of VoIP that add cost but may not be apparent. Cabling may have to be upgraded, and e-mail server capacity expanded to handle voice messages in a universal messaging application.

But by announcing initial, if small, deployment BellSouth and other operators can let their customers know that the process has begun and give them a roadmap for the future. The hype of a new technology focuses attention in ways that offer great benefits.

Where the hype becomes overbearing is when the practical details of a transition to new technology get lost in the shuffle of AMAZING NEW APPLICATIONS.

For VoIP, the most obvious are universal messaging and follow-me type services. The problem with hyping these apps is that both have been promised by previous generations of hot new technology, which proved to be too complex and expensive in the circuit-switched voice world to survive.

There is ample reason, and not a small amount of proof, to believe these apps will not only survive but flourish in the VoIP world. For that to happen, users must adapt to the new order of things, something that also takes time and practice.

And here is where hype does everyone a disservice, by raising expectations that dramatic change will be immediately beneficial and not disruptive. If, in fact, universal messaging does take off, it will be enormously disruptive, and for some, a royal pain. But in the long run, the additional productivity involved in allowing single access to multiple types of messages will be significant.

Here’s another example: Optical Ethernet services. These were riding high on the hype cycle three years ago, but slumped miserably when the business case didn’t pan out. In that case, a group of competitive carriers pushed way out in front of the incumbent carriers and raised a lot of money – and a lot of interest – by promising to deliver Gigabit Ethernet as a pure service.

Most of those companies went under but they stimulated enough enterprise interest in Ethernet as a service that incumbents became engaged, as did multiple equipment vendors. The result is the current flood of edge switches and routers that deliver Ethernet to customers, along with ATM, frame relay and more traditional offerings.

In that instance, hype did serve to more rapidly escalate Ethernet as a priority for incumbents but it did little to get the service to market in any ubiquitous way, because the changes required to do that are considerable. It will be years before today’s multi-service edge gear is widely deployed, as well, but the hype surrounding those capabilities is helping the market better define what the ultimate products will look like.

Hype has its place, but you have to recognize it for what it is.