Telecommunications is Britain’s fastest growing industry. Its gradual liberalisation over the past 20 years has turned a half moribund, public utility into an exciting, chaotic sector led by information demand and computer literate consumers.
Product innovation is critical. Software applications started appearing in telephone exchanges 15 years ago and are now moving into the network itself. Technical capabilities, next to price, are driving the expansion and demand for faster, larger networks.
For Ian Vance, chief engineer of public carrier networks at Canadian-based Nortel, this is good news. Nortel is one of two manufacturers of these networks in the UK, alongside the GEC and Siemens joint venture GPT.
Vance says his company is poised to take full advantage of the industry’s rapid expansion.
Also, as vice-president for technical, quality and external affairs, he is the main technical representative on the Nortel board. His challenge is to make sure the technical teams keep ahead of developments.
`Technical developments are not just about putting in smarter bits of hardware to offer a new service,’ says Vance. `It’s as much to do with how responsive our customers are, what their customer care is like.’
Nortel broke into the UK market with switches for new public telephone networks. After attempts to enter the close relationship between BT and GPT-Ericsson, where BT bought its equipment from European manufacturers, Nortel finally acquired its stake by supplying switches to BT’s rival, Mercury.
`Nortel is here in a big way because of deregulation, not for any other reason,’ says Vance.
Since then, it has built a firm position in the UK, opening a research lab in Harlow, and buying and disposing of other British equipment manufacturers along the way, notably parts of Britain’s telecoms heritage, STC. Sites such as cable factories in Greenwich and Newport were sold in the late 1980s to Alcatel Submarine Systems and Pirelli.
Growth in recent years has come from the corporate sector. `Companies want new features. Global integration is vital. Global customers want to be able interconnect with national networks,’ says Vance.
And they want more capacity. `The demand for more circuits (telephone lines), for more bandwidth on each circuit, for longer distance for the same bandwidth, just continues to go through the ceiling.’
More demand from the customers means more opportunities for Nortel to win orders for its equipment. Much of this is coming from demand to transmit data, embracing fax, Internet access and LAN to LAN.
Vance says that telecoms firms are waiting for the next big investment in public networks – the switch to broadband to the door of the consumer, whose local lines are made of copper wire, and the provision of bandwidth-hungry multimedia services.
By the time the technology is updated at the exchange end of the network, in the form of asynchronous transfer mode switches, an ultra-fast and flexible switch, the country’s networks will be a superhighway surfer’s paradise.
A forthcoming nationwide investment from the major operators is soon expected to turn copper narrowband into a conveyor of the ultimate in consumer choice: video-on-demand.
Vance points to the exciting opportunities for consumers which will offer huge potential business for the telecom suppliers.
`Just imagine you’ve got a network where you genuinely dial up anything you want,’ says Vance. `You have not got 300 or 400 channels, you no longer have a television schedule. You can walk in at 9.17 and watch anything you want.’
The upgrade is dependent on the cost of the technology to make this possible. Asymmetrical digital subscriber line (ADSL), is a modulating technique that will allow video to be delivered over copper wire, eliminating the need for replacing it with optical fibre. As with any major technological advance, the future of ADSL, and its potential for manufacturing, depends on whether its price appeals to consumers.
`The technology is dominated by silicon in the hardware, and it’s not being made by any of us.’
Vance is the bright research engineer who made it big in management. He built his first radio at the age of six. `Radio engineers are born rather than made,’ he says. And apart from an early leaning towards architecture, which was discounted as a rush of blood to the head, his experience seems to bear this out.
Vance joined STL (the research labs of STC) as a radio engineer, after taking a degree in electronic engineering at Aston University.
Vance has been with what is now the UK site of Nortel all his working life. He claims to have invented pagers by putting a radio on a single chip. It sold more than a million.
By 1991, Vance was running the lab as managing director. By then STL had stopped manufacturing semiconductors and was concentrating on switching and intelligent networks. `We are absolutely not investing in R&D in silicon because we don’t manufacture it any more.’
The experience has lent an insight into the best commercial exploitation of research: `I don’t believe in blue sky research, I believe in problem-solving. And having the right individuals: it’s the people that count.’