New lines of communication

If telecoms technology progresses at the same speed over the next 20 years as it has done over the past 10, how will society look? This is what industrialists and academics will be asked to imagine at two forthcoming workshops commissioned by the Engineering Council and run by the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The events, […]

If telecoms technology progresses at the same speed over the next 20 years as it has done over the past 10, how will society look? This is what industrialists and academics will be asked to imagine at two forthcoming workshops commissioned by the Engineering Council and run by the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

The events, one on 12 November and one on 11 December, will try to answer questions posed by technological change.

Are telecoms engineers really leading a revolution that will eradicate our present lifestyle? What effects will it generate in our working environment, from changes in the relationship between people and machines to the contractual nature of work? And what are the moral implications? As society becomes more complex, how do engineers keep up with the security and legal implications of a technology that succeeds because it works around conventional bureaucratic barriers?

The telecoms workshops form part of the continuing 2020 Vision series, a cross-industry focus on how energy, transport, environment and communication technology might look in that year, and how it might impact on society. The idea for 2020 Vision came from Alan Rudge, chairman of the Engineering Council, as a profile-raising exercise for the profession and as a way of cementing the reformed council together.

Professor Philip Secker, deputy secretary of the IEE, says of the telecoms sessions: ‘We want to look at the interface between technology and society. It’s important for engineers to step back and see where their technology is leading, rather than just look at the success of technology and profit.’

Secker says that imagining technology in 20 years is impossible in telecoms, so the workshops will concentrate on five or six years ahead.

Workshops held earlier this year debated electronic publishing and privacy. ‘We’re one of the most overseen nations in the world and yet we don’t seem to mind,’ says Secker.

At the November session, delegates will discuss Distance destroyed: How will telecoms shape wealth creation and work patterns?

Just as 19th century railroads built America into a massive economic force in the 20th century, so telecoms will build the economies of the next century. Transactions can now cover continents in seconds.

‘It’s now possible to get a lot of work done anywhere in the world and have it sent instantly via the Internet,’ says Secker. ‘A lot of companies will see their work move abroad because of the UK’s high cost base, and have their work done in India for a fifth of the price.

‘But small companies will also be able to advertise their wares on a global scale, whereas in the past it was difficult to reach potential customers even nationally.’

Few people realise that cheap telecoms created by a competitive environment has been one of the biggest attractions for inward investors.

‘Because of the early introduction of liberalisation and competition into the UK telecoms market, prices have come down much more significantly than in the rest of Europe,’ says one industry expert. ‘Any company which has a fair proportion of its costs represented by telecoms will want to locate where the services are best and where the costs are least.’

The low costs and efficiency of the UK’s communications industry are claimed to have been one of the secrets of London’s success as a financial centre. While its nearest rival, Frankfurt, is only just beginning to liberalise telecoms, London has benefited from a massive growth in financial spin-off services that depend on speedy transfer of information.

The growth in telecoms is likely to change radically the way people work. The European Union expects the total of teleworkers people working from home in the EU to reach 10 million by 2000. And teleworking is expected to evolve into the ‘telecottage’.

The ‘virtual’ employee will gradually adapt to big businesses’ preference for short-term contracts and subcontracting and become a consultant, supplying more than one company.

The more transparent telecoms become, the less distance will matter, and the greater the opportunity to export services without leaving the country.

Many people complain about videoconferencing, but inevitably this will improve, and for now, be complemented by audio-conferencing. Written documents and shared illustrations will be sent over telecoms networks. And as bandwidth improves, complex technical drawings, too, will be sent instantly.

However, there is concern that small companies will not be able to take advantage of the telecoms revolution. ‘Where the smaller business is not in the high-technology sector, where the use of computers is minimal, then the Internet has passed them by,’ says the industry expert.

Some firms that are just able to keep their heads above water lack computerised accounts, let alone the Web sites that would advertise their goods around the world.

At the November event, Bruce Bond, president of US firm ANS Communications and formerly a BT executive, will give the keynote address at a seminar on wealth creation. And Nortel’s Ian Vance will give a view on The design and manufacture of telecommunications systems on a global basis.

The workshop will be chaired by Geoffrey Robinson, who has been a chief scientist and engineer at the Department of Trade and Industry.

More controversy is expected at the December workshop, which will focus on Morality in the information society. ‘We don’t want it to be taken over by the pornography and sex on the Internet,’ says Secker.

Martin Ward, technical director of GPT, has chaired the organising committee. Speakers will include Dr John Taylor, director of Hewlett-Packard laboratories, whose keynote address will discuss the findings of a Technology Foresight committee studying the social implications of the virtual society.

The Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, is expected to ruffle a few feathers with his speech What hath God wrought? Ethical and spiritual implications of the information society.

Dr Colin Gaskell, formerly chief executive of the 600 Group, will talk about business issues. Currently these concern encryption and privacy: digitisation’s potential for vast databases has exposed individuals to the dangers of criminal hackers.

‘There are techniques for protecting information, such as they are,’ says Dr Rodger Hake, technical director of the British Computer Society, and chairman of the morality organising committee. ‘But there’s a continual battle. You develop a system that’s secure, but outsiders find a way through.’

The issue is complicated by the role of Government. Officials like to retain their little-known facility to eavesdrop. But in the digital age, when sensitive electronic communication is protected by encryption, this is difficult without the decrypting ‘keys’ employing complicated mathematical formulae to scramble and unscramble the information being transmitted.

So engineers have to find a technique that allows Government officials, or ‘trusted third parties’ such as banks or telephone companies, to tap into electronic transactions without letting unwanted outsiders tap in as well.

The DTI is helping develop legislation to allow trusted third parties access to electronic communication. Such legislation would require users to deposit a copy of the decryption key with the trusted third party. But law enforcement agencies would be able to use the keys under a court order, for their own purposes.

The proposals were developed before the election of the Labour Government, which has not yet made clear its position.

Copyright is another concern. Software companies have always been under threat of pirating. The drive to copy software illegally is strong, as it often costs thousands of pounds to buy new. Most software companies take it on trust that users will not make copies.

But a new threat has appeared. China, lacking the resources to pay for new software, has developed a thriving black market in pirated software. These developments have alarmed software giant Microsoft, which makes much of its money from selling to the consumer.

Of even greater urgency is pirated software transmitted over the Internet. The software can be copied, sold and used instantly.

In an attempt to meet these challenges, Microsoft has set up hotlines and rewards for tip-offs about software piracy, developed special watermarks and warned users of the dangers of buying pirated software.

With all these issues to be discussed, the joint IEE/Engineering Council workshops should provide a lively forum for debating the impact of developing telecoms technology on the society of 2020.