ISDN proves that there’s nothing new under the sun – but does anyone really need it? A two day conference on the Integrated Services Digital Network, entitled All You Need To Know About ISDN, was held in London last week, aiming to address such questions as Have we lost sight of its purpose?, Are potential […]
ISDN proves that there’s nothing new under the sun – but does anyone really need it?
A two day conference on the Integrated Services Digital Network, entitled All You Need To Know About ISDN, was held in London last week, aiming to address such questions as Have we lost sight of its purpose?, Are potential customers ready for ISDN?, and Are we suffering from ISDN fatigue?, as well as looking at emerging business applications for ISDN. ISDN, the conference chairman Stephen Finch stressed, is by no means a new concept, with various standards pertaining to it being defined in the early 1970s, and the original idea going right back to the 1960s. Nonetheless, there are still serious doubts as to whether ISDN will be able to fulfill its promise even in the next decade, and the voices of the mocking birds, as Theodor Irmer’s keynote address accepted, are beginning to be heard more and more.
User scepticism justified by the hype about the rate of take-up, says CCITT chief
Theodor Irmer, who has recently been re-elected as director at the Consulative Committee on International Telegraphy & Telephony started by quoting some of the favourite theories of the Doubting Thomases: does ISDN in fact stand for Ideas Subscribers Don’t Need? Has ISDN been set up as the final battleground of the telecommunications companies against the computer and data processing firms? Or, more insidiously, is ISDN a political plot to prevent US and Japanese industry from entering Europe? Irmer stated that none of these theories held the truth about ISDN, but admitted that the scepticism is in part a counter-reaction to a period of excessive optimism in the industry about the speed with which ISDN would establish itself; what is required now, said Irmer, is a new realism concerning the limitations of ISDN, the length of time it will take to arrive, and most importantly, the new kind of market that suppliers and network operators will have to respond to. After a brief mitigation of the standards policy pursued by CCITT, and a reminder that a recommendation published by CCITT in 1980 had concluded with the observation that ISDN may require a period of time extending over one or two decades, Irmer went on to look at the reasons for ISDN’s failure to evolve, in a speech that gave the strong impression of being a gentle ticking off for the many suppliers present. Firstly, it was clear that the technical people had not done their job in explaining ISDN to potential users, many of whom had only the vaguest idea about what ISDN was, and how it could be implemented: multi-coloured leaflets with attractive ladies walking on terminals were all very well, said Irmer, and at least they lined the pockets of consultants, but what the customer really needs was full and honest information, explaining what ISDN can bring to them, the adaptions to their existing infrastructure and business practices it will necessitate, and the limitations of ISDN. But according to Irmer, the most important failing of network operators and suppliers was their intransigence in accepting that unlike dedicated networks, where the network provider is to a large extent God, ISDN will be sold in a buyers market, with suppliers chasing customers, and potential users dictating their needs to the operators: if, for example, customers say they do not want to install an S-interface for their private branch exchanges, then suppliers should not insist that they do – let the market decide, urged Irmer. Moreover, it was clear that existing ISDN terminals were considered too complicated and too dear: true, the network software and hardware had been sorted out, but what the customer, who in most cases had a limited technical expertise, was really crying out for were cheap and easy to use terminals; future success would depend on suppliers responding to needs such as these. But the crucial issue was the question of tariffs. Irmer, who throughout the address exhibited a fondness and facility for the English metaphor, said that operators should not use ISDN as a potential milking cow, but s
hould set cost-related tariffs that bring a reasonable return, while remaining attractive to users. Customers should pay only for use of the 64Kbps ISDN channel, regardless of whether their main application was voice or data, and following on from that, Irmer suggested that there was no reason why suppliers should not charge the the flat rate for a traditional 64Kbps telephone connection. Finally, suppliers should recognise the dual concept of ISDN, firstly as a standardised basic service, and secondly as offering a number of non-standard, user-specific applications, defined by the users themselves. Clearly, Irmer’s overall message was that network providers should be prepared to come down from their pedestals, start listening to what the market requires from them, and to view the customer as a partner in the ISDN club. By doing this, Irmer suggested, the letters ISDN could in future stand for Innovations Subscribers Do Need.
No awareness of ISDN cost, capabilities
In the second address, Martin Coggin, formerly with Cable & Wireless, now a consultant for London-based PA Consulting Group, took up Theodor Irmer’s point about the different market place that ISDN has created and network providers’ failure to react to it, by claiming that users were still completely in the dark about how much ISDN would cost, and what it could do for them. By listening to PA’s clients, Coggin had concluded that the way forward for ISDN consisted in convincing firms that it could offer them a significant business advantage: ultimately, users really were first and foremost interested in having the existing services offered to them, but at a reduced cost, and with increased reliability. Granted that ISDN is capable of providing this, real success will depend on ISDN offering applications that users actually want. According to Coggin, these could include the integration of Centrex, so allowing users to integrate their private branches with Centrex users into a seamless private voice network; intelligent network services for toll free or 0800 type services; and support for data services, such as using the 64Kbps speed to generate high quality facsimile messages, use as a Local Area Network bridge, and access to X25 networks. Coggin concluded by arguing that ISDN will ultimately be used extensively, but, echoing Irmer, he continued that this depended on ISDN suppliers listening more closely to users’ needs. Time was also a factor, because if the process took to long, competing technologies such as mobile networks, satellite transmission, and the cable networks of home entertainment providers, could well steal ISDN’s thunder. Finally, it was restated that the tariffs and service costs must reflect the value of ISDN to the users, and should be comparable to existing telephone rates. – Mark John