How the Grinch stole telecom

To be accurate, the title above should read “How the Grinch is trying to steal telecom.” I’m going out on a limb and making the assumption that it will soon be a foregone conclusion that network neutrality will be a thing of the past. More on that in a minute. But speaking of telecom, despite the doom and gloom scenarios that have persisted since the dot-com meltdown, the telecom market remains healthy and is minting all kinds of nifty small form factor technology useful in nontelecom systems.

Cornucopia of standards, applications
Forget what you read in 2000 and 2001 about the decimated remains of telecom companies when dot-com turned to dot-bomb. Back then, the Internet’s infrastructure was substantially overbuilt and Sun, Cisco, and others ended up writing off tens of millions of dollars in inventory and customers’ double-booked backlog. Today, dark fiber in the Internet’s core infrastructure is being lit as multimedia applications including IPTV, BitTorrent, and VoIP suck as much bandwidth as is available. Google is building what might be the world’s largest server farm near me on the banks of the Columbia River in The Dalles, Oregon1. That means more servers and line cards, and it also means a need for new telecom standards such as PICMG’s AdvancedTCA and the existing CompactPCI.

At the consumer end, edge systems to perform packet inspection and shaping speed up IP routing and optimize (or throttle) consumer data rates. New equipment is needed to do this, with multicore processors linked via PCI Express or mounted on swappable mezzanine cards such as PICMG’s Advanced Mezzanine Card (AdvancedMC). But horsepower’s not enough: Low-power processors that are equally perfect for smaller embedded systems are needed to offset megawatts of rack-mounted server heat.

Mobile phone penetration hasn’t slowed down either, especially with China’s appetite for all things Western. The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) is forecasting 9.8 percent market growth in 2006 to $249.6 billion, and up to a whopping  9.2 percent compound annual growth rate by 2009. Most of this growth is coming from consumer doodads, especially multimedia 3G cell phones. That’s a small form factor computer if there ever was one.

This rosy picture will continue to present myriad opportunities for small form factor vendors and users alike. There’s an initiative afoot from companies such as Kontron and Motorola to create rugged versions of AdvancedMC modules; these might be perfect for harsh environments such as factory automation, subway trains, vehicle data loggers, or military robots. Similarly, what the telecom industry learns about applying the desktop PCI Express serial fabric to embedded applications in AdvancedTCA and CompactPCI cards is directly applicable to next-generation PC/104 variants. Check out the articles about PCI Express in this issue by new PC/104 Consortium President Jonathan Miller, and by Advantech.

Net neutrality will probably fail
But there’s a dark side to telecom too. Internet technology and connectivity is so integral to our embedded market that I’m in favor of network neutrality. You might be unaware of the battle brewing over the speed of the Internet. This is a subject as long and intriguing as any Ludlum novel, so I’ll keep it brief2. In a nutshell, a number of large telephone ISPs are lobbying Congress and the FCC for a multi-tiered Internet with a data rate directly proportional to a consumer’s payment. On the surface, this sounds fair to me as I already pay a higher rate for a faster cable connection. But hold on a moment.

The issue has sparked controversy and loud cries from consumer advocate groups such as the EFF and senators like  Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) because of the “chilling effects” on small business, rural communities, and lower-income individuals who might be financially restricted to a slower Internet connection. The argument is that the Internet is so essential to 21st century life that everyone needs fair and maximum access. Since its inception, the Internet has been the great equalizer, yielding unheard of business, economic, and social bounty for everyone while smashing previously accepted paradigms and business hegemonies.

In addition, companies such as Microsoft (MSN), Google, and others are worried they’d be forced to pay for more bandwidth to their server search farms at the same time the recipients at the other end of the pipe are paying more for content delivery. This double-dipping squeeze play has most technology pundits up-in-arms. Alas, as we went to press, indications are that Congress and the FCC are writing legislation in favor of a tiered Internet. Interestingly, while the telecos are supplying the political inertia in Washington, the rival broadband cable companies are staying mum.

Only the status quo of network neutrality will mean business as usual; a multi-tiered Internet will affect our market in unknown ways.