CONVERGENCE OF PHONES, COMPUTERS AND CABLE:
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
New technology could
mean message centers in our refrigerators
and more people working at home
By Jerri Stroud
Of the Post-Dispatch
Oct. 10, 1999
Edited by Virginia Baldwin Hick
(David Bayer is chief
executive officer of DBX Corp. of Clayton, and Robert A. Brooks
Gabriel Communications of Chesterfield.)
(cutline): David Bayer founded CyberTel, the predecessor to Ameritech Cellular and Paging here. His new company is developing a worldwide satellite network that would relay messages and data from devices that are mobile or in remote locations. The data would be conveyed via the Internet to companies, government agencies and others that need the information.
(cutline): Robert A. Brooks, a cable pioneer since the 1950s, founded Cencom Cable and Brooks Fiber Properties, both of which were sold to larger companies. His new company competes with Southwestern Bell on local telephone service and sells long-distance data transmission and Internet access.
QUESTION: Telephones, computers and cable television appear to be converging as the century draws to a close. Will we be able to tell them apart 100 years from now?
Bayer: It's the nature of communications content to converge, but there will still be different hardware for delivering different types of content.
The mass media deliver to us a huge panoply of information, most of which doesn't apply to any one reader or any one viewer. To zero in on what's of interest to you, you need a selective device. That's where high-speed Internet access and the computer come into play.
Other devices will meld together content delivery, voice messaging and text messaging. Starting soon, our TV sets and refrigerators will contain computers. The kitchen refrigerator will become our home message center. Cable systems or telephone networks will connect the TV and refrigerator to the Web.
Brooks: I see a new kind of network replacing the telephone and cable television networks as we know them now. Instead of relying on existing t echnology, new companies will emerge that will install new networks that can be used for all types of communications -- voice, video and data. The new companies will be wholesalers, serving telephone companies, cable companies and others who will provide services over a common network.
Q: What new services or uses of communications will develop?
Brooks: Mothers -- and fathers -- will move to some sort of home office employment. We've got to give them a better workplace and child care -- and the best child care is in the home. If we can manage it so that a mom can be at home and still get her work done, we'll need less office space and we'll see less traffic congestion.
I also see a tremendous increase in the educational usage of the Internet. Right now, if there's a snow day or school is called off, that's wasted time. In the future, we will be able to provide schooling when the students are at home. It could be a tremendous way for special kids with disabilities to learn and stay home with their caregivers.
Q: Will we see congestion of the telephone and computer networks as use continues to grow, or will technology continue to open up capacity and increase transmission speed?
Bayer: To some extent, both will occur. To date, we haven't been able to calculate the growth rate for the Internet. We haven't been able to ramp up servers and delivery facilities in anticipation of demand.
The Internet structure is a little bit uneconomic today. Revenue and costs are not quite in harmony with each other. Those will eventually harmonize so that the providers will be building the facilities just ahead of when the users want to use them.
Q: Deregulation and competition have produced a communications landscape that many consumers find baffling and often frustrating. How will new developments affect the consumers' ability to make good choices and feel good about the choices they make?
Bayer: The American consumer is very, very smart and will adapt.
The communications providers will adapt by constantly refining their delivery and content offerings. The market eventually figures out how to sort through the choices available to it. Bills will get easier to understand.
Some of the things like slamming (the unauthorized change of a customer's long-distance company), dinner-hour telemarketers, confusing telephone bills and cable interruptions are presently an annoyance. The market and the regulators will eventually make the pain so great that companies now engaged in these activities will stop them.
Brooks: Consumer protection has to be a bigger part of federal and state regulation. There should be some way for a consumer to make a decision without the pressure of deciding on 5 cents or 6 cents a minute and monthly charges.
There should be a contractual relationship between consumers and providers -- with a standard form approved by regulators.
Q: Will our phone bills get cheaper or more expensive?
Bayer: Relative to the other ways we spend money, the cost of communications will come down dramatically. It always has and it always will.
It's no secret that long-distance has been subsidizing local service. But eventually, that must change. We may decide that we want to directly subsidize rural service and non-urban service -- or we may decide to switch those to wireless, which is probably the best approach. Those need to be conscious decisions -- addressed soon -- with radio spectrum allocated.
Brooks: The cost of individual services will be less, but we may spend more because of additional services that we will want to use.
Q: Over the last 100 years, we've gone from a wildly competitive telephone market early in the century to a monopoly and back again to competition, although the new era of competition is still in its infancy. How do you expect competition to develop in the next century?
Bayer: A shortage of capital, wars and economic depression in the first half of the 20th century were the real drivers of the concept that monopoly utilities were socially beneficial ... the financial limits have now gone away. It's unlikely that we would ever get to the level of competition in local communications that we have in gasoline. (In long-distance, we are already there.)
In large commercial areas, for local service delivery, we are likely to have the incumbent telephone company and one to three viable wired alternatives. Residentially, we will have the incumbent telephone company, the cable company and one or two wireless providers.
Brooks sees three to five major providers of cable, telephone and Internet access in top markets. The carriers would be partnerships of television and telephone companies or merged companies like AT&T-TCI.
Q: Communications has changed the way we think about our world and the way we conduct our daily lives. How will that play out?
Bayer: Communications is an enabler of personal freedom. The improveme nts began with Gutenberg and likely will accelerate through all our tomorrows. Most of the time this is good because it enriches our lives.
Occasionally it is bad, and our children hear or see something we wish they didn't. Devices and content coding soon will come about that will let us deal with this problem. Over the history of mankind, the growth of communications has facilitated the growth of economies and the growth of personal freedom. That is why China and Russia feared our satellites more than they feared our bombs. The fax machine opened those societies to capitalism.
Granted, people who want to control others also have used communications to facilitate that control. But the balance will always favor added freedom and added choice through communications.
Photos and graphics
(1) Photo Headshots of David Bayer and Robert
(2) Graphic / Chart / Illustration - The next generation of cellular phones
Remote access to home: Hook your coffee maker and VCR up to the Internet and you can turn them on with a phone call.
Internet: E-mail services are already available to most wireless customers. On the way: cell phones that plug into laptops for mobile internet.
Add-on cellular: Stuck in traffic? Dialing "JAM" would give you an alternative. Or dial "MAP" for directions.
Wireless snack: Crave a candy bar? No cash? Use your cell phone to call a number on the vending machine and the snack is yours.
(Illustrations of a coffee maker, envelope, globe, cellular phone, map and vending machine.)
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