Incumbent Innovation: Changing the Face of Telecom

By: Tim Young

Innovation:  it's what makes technology, business, and even society itself move forward. It's not a tangible end-goal as much as it is a process. A journey, if you will, rather than a destination. 

Often, we see innovation most clearly in the work done by tiny, agile start-ups staffed by plucky iconoclasts dedicated to the idea of fundamentally changing the way things are done. Within communications and entertainment technology (COMET), we generally look for this innovation to come from cutting-edge OSS and BSS software vendors and smaller competitive carriers and over-the-top (OTT) players. In short, we expect innovation from those who have little to lose and everything to gain from shaking up the status quo.

But this would be a vast underestimation of the truly insightful R&D work being undertaken every day by the major incumbent carriers through massive and well-funded in-house labs. In many ways, of course, we have these sorts of labs to thank for the existence of much of the OSS and BSS technology we cover every day which can be traced back to work done in the labs of companies like AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom, Verizon, and the like. 

"I think it’s fair to say firms like BT actually are massively innovative already and have been for years," said Tim Whitely, Managing Director of Research and Technology for BT Innovation, the R&D nerve-center for the British telecom powerhouse. "If you look at technologies such as fast copper access, single mode optical fiber and a variety of new routing and switching technologies, these have all been developed by telcos."

And of course these companies have a history of innovation. They've helped to create the industries they now take part in. AT&T, for example, traces its heritage back to the very genesis of telephony, beginning its tech timeline with Bell's invention of the telephone in the 19th Century (though its direct corporate lineage--due to the break-up and make-up process of the various Baby Bells--is SBC Labs, established 1988).  BT, meanwhile, claims even deeper roots.    "BT is the oldest telco in the world, with a direct line of descent from the first national telecommunications undertaking," said Whitely.  "The Electric Telegraph Company incorporated in 1846, was the first anywhere to develop a nationwide communications network exploiting leading edge telegraphy technology."

Every move that these companies made, early on, was innovative to its core. The trails had not yet been blazed, so each new technological advance required a combination of careful planning and bold invention. However, Whitely noted that much of this previous work enabled other technologies, but was not, itself, done within view of the public.

"Now the pace of change means we are firmly in the public eye," said Whitely, which BT considers a good thing, in many ways, as it helps the service provider stay connected with its subscribers, something Whitely considers a key component for success. 


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