Nevertheless, research support has fallen off in recent years. Prior to the restructuring of the telecommunications industry in 1984, the Bell System’s research labs played a dominant role in long-term, fundamental telecommunications research for the United States. Post-restructuring, industrial support for such research has declined, become more short-term in scope, and become less stable. A diverse array of competing telecommunications firms— telephone, cable, Internet, and wireless—emerged, leaving most research to equipment vendors, which increasingly focused on short-term goals. Telecommunications research is increasingly being done at universities rather than by industry, and outside rather than inside the United States. In addition, the diversity of players in today’s telecommunications industry makes it difficult to design and deploy major, end-to-end innovations.
Federal funding of long-term research has not increased to cover the decline in industry support. No systematic efforts, such as took place for the semiconductor industry with SEMATECH, have emerged. Because the benefits of much telecommunications research cannot be appropriated by individual firms, therefore, public funding of such research appears necessary.
The NSF and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have been the two primary sources of federal telecommunications R&D support. NSF, long a supporter of telecommunications R&D spanning a range of topics, has recently been increasing its attention to telecommunications R&D, with an emerging emphasis on new approaches to networking. DARPA, which funded a number of important telecommunications advances in the past (including elements of the Internet itself), has been shifting its emphasis toward more immediate military needs and giving less attention to long-term telecommunications research.
How important is telecommunications as an industry, and how important is telecommunications research to the overall health of that industry? Underlying these questions are several others. How important is telecommunications to the U.S. economy and society? To what extent are U.S. consumers likely to benefit directly from telecommunications research in terms of new products and services that enhance their lives or improve their effectiveness or productivity? How much scope for innovation is there left in telecommunications, or has telecommunications matured to the point that it is merely a commodity service or technology?