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Analysts may tout the coming "convergence" of communications technologies, but the real trend is "divergence."
No subject in recent memory has received as much media attention as the "Information Superhighway". But exactly what it is remains curiously unclear. The Internet? Wireless personal communications services (PCS)? Interactive fiber-optic cable to the home? The Infobahn is all of these and more. It will also exert an enormous effect on the electric utility industry as a way to cut costs, improve service, and generate new revenues.
Many utilities have recognized the magnitude of the potential opportunity. Some, like Pacific Gas & Electric (with partners TCI and Microsoft) and Public Service Electric & Gas (with partners led by AT&T), are announcing high-profile broadband-oriented pilot projects. Others, like Kansas City Power & Light and Union Electric (with partner CellNet), are quietly rolling out utility technology to most, or all, of their customers. Virtually every major utility is at least studying the subject.
A Network of Networks
The Superhighway consists of many communications technologies (em fiber-optic and coaxial cable, numerous forms of wireless, twisted copper pairs, and especially software: operating systems, network management software, applications, user interfaces, and messaging protocols. The software is the glue that holds together the digital information being transmitted over the networks.
The Infobahn is a network of networks that comprises all of these technologies. Let's say a utility marketing representative (em a "road warrior" (em sends a fax from her mobile laptop computer over a cellular phone. The signal is received at a cell site, which forwards it using a microwave radio link to a master control station. This station puts the fax on a
fiber-optic cable that carries the data across the service territory, then dumps it on a twisted copper pair that delivers it to the fax machine at the home office. All of this is managed by software in the mobile computer, in the cellular network, in the long-haul carrier, in the local phone company at the receiving end, and finally, in the fax machine.
This example illustrates four important principles of telecommunications. First, the user is technology neutral: She cares only that the fax is delivered quickly and reliably. She is paying for the service of delivering a fax while working on the road, not for the privilege of using a particular technology. Second, successful communications takes advantage of a variety of technologies, each optimized to fulfill its purpose (cellular for mobile car phones, fiber-optic for long-distance, and so on). Third, the technologies, both hardware and software, are multiple and do not compete: They complement one another to form a unified network that provides the desired service. Fourth, multiple
communications service providers (em each with its own expertise in wireless mobile voice, long-distance data transmission, or local telephony (em work in concert. This is the "superhighway" in every sense.
A number of analysts tout the coming "convergence" of communications technologies. The real technology trend is "divergence." Where there were only wired phones 15 years ago, there are now cell phones, cordless phones, and satellite phones. In 1994, growth in