Former BT CTO Fears for Telcos

BURLINGAME, Calif. -- If Peter Cochrane had his way, we'd already have fiber to the home.

The former CTO of BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) and founder of ConceptLabs Inc. , speaking here at a conference on Wednesday, said that in 1986 the phone companies could have laid fiber optic cable at less than the cost of laying copper, yet they balked at the chance because of regulatory and political factors. (See Euro Giants Lose Market Share.)

His point? The prognosis for telephone companies isn't good right now, as technology is increasingly digital, mobile, and interconnected. “Broadband will kill traditional telephony,” Cochrane says. “Big switches will be replaced by IP networks; and the PBX market will be lost to office WANs and LANs,” he says. (See Ubiquity Moves Closer to AT&T.)

While CTO at BT, Cochrane was responsible for programs that installed the first undersea fiber cable system between the U.S. and Europe in 1986. He also led the deployment of fiber systems throughout the U.K.

Admirable accomplishments, to be sure. But Cochrane says the telcos took -- and are still taking -- too long to change and embrace newer communications technologies. “People often look at problems through a straw; they need to look for answers in directions they normally wouldn’t look.” (See Net Neutrality Goes to Washington.)

"Big organizations never change until death is staring them in the face,” Cochrane said as the image of a shrouded skeleton from an old Hammer horror film appeared on screens flanking the stage. (See Eurobites: Light Me!)

Cochrane opened his talk with some video footage of the way BT envisioned videoconferencing back in the 1960s. In the footage, two men sit at a table and have a meeting with the holographic images of two other men, presumably located across the globe. “The thing they realized back then is that video conferencing is crap; it was crap then and it is crap now,” Cochrane said, not that he's bitter.

Cochrane says the fortunes spent by the movie industry to stop videotaping, and the music industry’s multibillion-dollar legal war against MP3 file sharing, are examples of big, reactive companies gone wild. He suggests the phone companies must embrace innovations like VOIP and other IP applications in order to avoid such dangerous endgame scenarios.

And, while he didn't have any real solutions to share, Cochrane at least attempted to entertain with some off-the-wall predictions on where technology's headed. He predicts:

  • Video-enabled iPods and other mobile devices will take much attention away from television, and could destroy the medium
  • Homecare will replace healthcare
  • Home creativity will replace office connectivity
  • Robots will outnumber people
  • Machines will make the important decisions, not people
  • Everything will be “digitized, connected, smarter and smaller.”

And, while we don't have fiber-to-the-home everywhere, yet, Cochrane believes that the proliferation of access technology will only lead to more lit fiber in more places.

“The dream is wireless access over the whole globe. But the more wireless we put out in the network, counter-intuitively, the more fiber we have to have out there.”

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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