Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Technology Convergence: Roadmap To Global Economic Integration?

Toure, ITU Sec Gen

Zoelick, World Bank President


Convergence has been acclaimed to be one of the greatest legacies technology is bequeathing on humanity. All over the world today, Africa inclusive, technology-savvy people cannot but applaud one of technology’s amazing feats- convergence. In telecoms for instance, convergence has brought multiple services in one pocket device.
Analysts contend that with the rate technology convergence is turning the world into a global village, the possibility of integrating the global economy is a matter of time.

Call it technological singularity; call it unified communication, the current reality is that technology convergence has come to stay. And this reality tends to give support to an assertion by renowned Statistician, I.J. Good some years back that “if machines could even slightly surpass human intellect, they could improve their own designs in ways unseen by their designers, and thus recursively augment themselves into far greater intelligence.”
Good had termed this development ‘intelligent explosion’- a period generally seen by experts as a period of extremely rapid technological progress. “Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines in these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an intelligence explosion, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”
Convergence in communication is a term commonly used in reference to the synergy formed at the combination of voice, data and video onto a single network. Technological convergence on the other hand, can be referred to the phenomenon of a group of technologies developed for one use, being utilised in many different contexts. Until now, these technologies were working independent of each other but are now able to share resources and interact with each other thereby creating new efficiencies.  
Often described as the trend of technologies to merge into new technologies that bring together a myriad of media before now, technology relied on one medium to accomplish one or two tasks. But the latest trend is that with technological convergence, devices are now able to present and interact with a wide array of media.
Instances abound. Hitherto, each entertainment medium had to be played on a specific device. Video for instance, was played on a television by using a video player of some sort; music lovers played music on a tape deck or compact disc player. People listened to radio through an AM/FM tuner, while video games were played through a console of some sort.
Similarly, different communication media used their own technologies. Voice conversation was carried on using a telephone, video communication briefly used high-end video phones, facsimile copies used fax machines, and e-mail used a computer.
In the last few years, technological convergence has resulted in the emergence of devices that not only interact with the media they are primarily designed to handle, but also with a number of other formats. Today, most modern DVD players can no longer just play DVDs but can also play music CDs in addition to displaying photos from photo CDs, playing encoded video in formats such as DIVX or VCD, and playing DVD music.
Through technological convergence, devices have been designed specifically to replace a number of different devices due to advancement in breakthroughs in technological convergence. The Apple iPod for instance, which was originally conceived of as a portable player is now seen as a portable video player, photo album and radio tuner. The cell phone has become a one-stop device offering the traditional voice functionality in addition to serving as music player, digital camera and text messenger system, etc.
Yet, the Internet appears to be perhaps, the most widespread example of technological convergence. Virtually all entertainment technologies- from radio to television to video to books to games can be viewed and played online, often with greater functionality than they have in their primary technology. Communications technologies, as well, can be used, with the Internet replacing fax machines, telephones, video phones, and the postal service.
Amazon.com had argued sometime ago that a trend is underway in which voice and data communications are merging. It contended that the irresistible logic is that digitized voice is just another kind of data, after all, adding that the economies of convergence can be considerable where there would be no need to build and support separate voice and data infrastructures when you have just one.
In fact, it is this combination of infrastructure that presents the problem that telecommunication convergence aims to solve: data people, who haven’t worried about voice in the past, have to worry about it now. Similarly, people who used to specialise exclusively in switched voice circuits are now considering adapting to the new environment.
Industry analysts argue strongly that telecom and cable companies are already eyeing real convergence. In the meantime, today’s mobile phones come with voice, data, radio, video, mp3 players, voice recorders, digital cameras etc. Thus, the mobile phone has become a one-stop-shop of sort, offering all the services required in modern day telecommunications business. Little wonder telecom service providers now have variety of approaches at their disposal in enabling customers to access product content.
Take for instance, in what is today termed the ‘three-screen strategy,’ telecom companies with a strong wireless element are said to be focusing on the offering of IPTV services, broadband Internet access and wireless thus making technologies establish who a person is and the content they have access to, across multiple platforms.
Undoubtedly acclaimed as where the world is headed for, some companies are already forming synergies and collaborations to promote technology convergence. Just about four years ago, Cisco, a global networking firm and Microsoft, a renowned global software giant, threw competition to the winds and had to come together in a collaboration aimed at focusing on unified communication technology with particular interest in the convergence of telephony, email, instant messaging and video conferencing via IP technology.
While reiterating their commitment to increasingly focus on the interoperability of these unified communications technologies to better meet customer needs, the global tech leaders noted in a joint statement that the “intersection of networking and software” is at the heart of a ‘new era’ of innovation in communication and collaboration.
Earlier in 2005, Qualcomm and Ericsson, two leading telecom equipment vendors announced they were conducting dual-mode CDMA 1X and GSM infrastructure trials in South Africa in a bid to show mobile operators there that CDMA can be used as an alternative to the typical GSM 3G technologies.
The two vendors performed demonstrations throughout Johannesburg, roaming between CDMA 1X and 1X EV-DO networks to GSM networks, using dual-mode handsets and Qualcomm’s GSM 1X Global Gateway, which supports the seamless hand-off from one network to the other.
Officials of the two vendors said then in a joint statement that carriers in Africa were looking towards CDMA as a possible complimentary technology because of its greater spectral efficiencies and subscriber capacities, but don’t want to give up their investments in GSM networks. However, the trials were to show that the two technologies can coexist on the same network.
For years now, CDMA proponents have argued that GSM carriers could switch to CDMA technologies for 3G since building a UMTS would require the construction of a whole new parallel network to GSM. While no carriers have taken up the challenge, a few carriers worldwide have deployed both GSM and CDMA networks, running them in parallel.
Since the evolution of the new technology some 12 years ago, there has been sustained interest by companies in technology convergence so as to create demand for new products. Today, rave of the moment, 3G, is being integrated in phones. 3G comes with a whole range of features that ordinarily should have individually been on their own.
Unlike before, when the traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs) enjoyed the exclusivity of providing broadband Internet services, the broadband cable market is today transforming as pay-TV providers move aggressively into what was once considered the telco stronghold. Some pay-TV service providers are today offering both TV and Internet services to their customers.
Nigeria, like other developing countries of the world, is already witnessing this sweeping technology revolution eminently represented by the multiplicity of services offered by the BlackBerry and some other Smartphones which come in the form of mobile phone, computer, camera as well as Internet connector.
Director General of Nigeria’s National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Professor Cleopas Angaye once told a Lagos-based publication that “Convergence has become a major theme in the industry to underscore where the ICT industry is now and where it is headed. Convergence is behind most of the new developments in the ICT sector and opens a wave of opportunities for investors.”
Immediate past Executive Vice Chairman of Nigeria’s Communications Commission (NCC), Engineer Ernest Ndukwe had at a public forum sometime ago noted that Convergence technologies are essential to managing our growing networks in a cost-effective manner and queried whether operators were utilising this as a strong foundation for value added services.
He said that historically, different networks were used to deliver voice, video and data, and end users use different equipment to receive these services however, technological developments have radically changed this scenario and have also bred a multiplicity of ICT services and applications.
“Convergence in the ICT sector has been identified as capable of yielding numerous benefits for all stakeholders of the industry, the economy/government, the regulator, the operators and the consumers,” Ndukwe pointed out.
At a forum in Lagos in 2007, an Executive Director with the Unity Bank Plc and a guru in Nigeria’s banking IT industry, Dr. Evans Woherem observed that the major enablers of convergence include Very Large Scale Integration that drives the continuing miniaturisation of devices such that several diverse functionalities can be packed into a single device.
He posited that globally, the ICT industry is gradually converging with the broadcast industry as Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) has in recent times been redefined as Interactive Personalised Television available now in mobile handheld devices including mobile phones.
The distinction between technology products like television sets, mobile devices, computers, game consoles etc, will continue to be extinguished as these tools continue to develop similar competencies.
With Nigeria’s gradual migration to modern technology innovations like 3G, 4G, WiMAX, LTE, and HSDPA among others, coupled with services under the unified license regime, the country’s telecoms environment is no doubt experiencing an increase in the convergence of technologies. There is already increased digitisation of content, there is rise in connectivity, and there is a new generation of technology users as well as improvement in technology.
The unified license regime for instance, has brought out the best in convergence as operators have now shifted from their traditional offerings to other services as allowed by the regime. Analysts argue that indeed, the unified license regime has increased the tempo of penetration of converged technologies in the country.
But in Nigeria, just like other developing countries, there are issues that must be addressed for consumers to enjoy seamless technology convergence. These issues include the harmonisation of definitions used in converging equipment, technologies and services so as to improve the regulation of standards and the licensing of converging technologies and equipment. This is needed particularly where separate regulators cover separate technological areas. Convergence increasingly needs cross-product and cross-platform regulation and licensing.
Regulators must be encouraged by governments to cooperate and integrate their regulatory efforts, and should ultimately consider merging regulatory bodies. The formation of a cross-sectional regulator would facilitate the existence and implementation of uniform cross-product standards upon which interoperability and interconnection of services and networks can be regulated. Effective regulation will remain a pipe dream, unless regulators are sufficiently resourced, have complete political independence, and the ability to make unbiased decisions. This explains the reason for the clamour for the merging of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
Today, national regulators are aligning their regulations to international agreements drawn up by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the requirements in the General Agreements on Trade and Services (GATS). Regulations are also being brought into line with regional economic integration practices, as seen with the OECD in the EU and, to a limited extent, with the Telecommunications Regulators’ Association of Southern Africa (TRASA) in SADC. National regulators will increasingly need to keep themselves abreast of changes beyond their borders if they are to remain effective, because many of the new technologies are not limited by political and geographic boundaries.
An emerging trend is the establishment of cross-sectional regulators that implement regulatory standards and practices that are not sector or equipment specific. The USA was the first to merge technology-specific regulators to regulate across telecommunications, media, and broadcasting services, with similar examples in Austria, Canada and Portugal. The same trend has occurred in developing countries with examples in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana and South Africa.
Yet, the emergence of new technologies, especially sophisticated information and communications technologies has no doubt made globalisation of the economy a possibility. It is a phenomenon that is evident in the financial markets, obviously showing in the goods and services markets.
Co-operation is increasing by the day between firms such that Research & Development as well as servicing and production are spreading around the world. Experts argue that the ICT industry is increasingly characterised by globalisation as strategic alliances have become today’s business tools. Technological excellence has been achieved through the pooling of skills and resources.
What all of these would probably lead to is the integration of the global economy.

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