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Progress in communication sciences, Vol. XV: Advances in telecommunications (Ablex, 1999)


Harmeet Sawhney
Department of Telecommunications
Indiana University, Bloomington

George A. Barnett
Department of Communication
State University of New York at Buffalo

I. The Field
II. The Volume
III. The Chapters
IV. References

I. The Field

The collection of papers in this volume provides an overview of the current state of communications research on issues related to the public telephone network. In many ways, this volume is a milepost marking the development of telecommunications research since its emergence as an area of study about three decades ago.

In the realm of human affairs, it often happens that a new era becomes closely identified with the person who heralds its arrival. Typically, this harbinger provides a crystallizing insight which reveals the meaning of the stray signs of the coming times. In the case of the telephone, in our opinion, Ithiel de Sola Pool's edited volume The Social Impact of the Telephone published in 1977 provided one such crystallizing moment for telecommunications research. Earlier, there had been works published on the invention of the telephone and its subsequent development (Bruce, 1973; Fagen, 1975; Kingsbury, 1915; Mackenzie, 1928; Paine, 1929), telephone companies (Cashman, 1972, Coon, 1939; Danielian, 1939; Goulden, 1970; Holcombe, 1911; MacMeal, 1934; Mavor, 1916; Page, 1941; Patten, 1926; Stehman, 1925; Walsh, 1950), and general history of the telephone (Baldwin, 1938; Brooks, 1976; Casson, 1913; Dilts, 1941; Pound, 1926; Robertson, 1947). However, they were usually biographies chronicling the "life and times" of a person, technology, or institution. More often than not, they were memoirs of a retired official, a journalistic endeavor, or a commemorative volume commissioned by a telephone industry association. Only a few of these publications were of a scholarly nature.

The importance of Pool's The Social Impact of the Telephone lies in the fact that it for the first time sketched out telecommunications as an area of scholarly research. Unlike previous works, the volume was not focused on one facet of the telephone story. It instead sought to encompass as many different facets of our experience with the telephone as possible in a single volume. The contributors included journalists, engineers, architects, economists, historians, geographers, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and communications scholars. The topics ranged from user behavior to urban planning to technological forecasting. The twenty-one chapters in the volume laid out the broad contours of the emerging area of research.

This volume drew considerable amount of attention. In fact, it is perhaps one of the most cited volumes in the literature on the social aspects of the telephone. Yet, Pool's objectives were only partially met as it did not stimulate much additional research in spite of all the discussion it generated. The lack of follow-up research was not restricted to communications but included almost all the other disciplines¼sociology, history, political science, and others¼which have scholars working on social dimension of technology. Economics and law were the only two disciplines which produced a sizable amount of research on telephone related issues over the last few years. However, the main impetus for both economic and legal scholarship was not Pool's book but the divestiture and the subsequent changes in the telephone industry. In fact, the research produced by both the disciplines has been overwhelmingly of a technocratic nature that deals with "nuts and bolts" issues related to the regulatory process. This research for the most part is not "big picture" oriented. Overall, the research on the telephone has been meager compared to the central role it is assuming in the emerging information economy. Since we are not in a position to comment on the state of affairs in other disciplines, we will limit our comments to communications in the following discussion. We will first examine factors which have impeded telephone related research within communications and then offer some thoughts on the contributions the field can potentially make in the future.

Although there has been considerable discussion on media convergence within the field, communications scholars have by and large been slow to include telephone among the different media they study. Traditionally, the field has focused on production and consumption of mass communication messages. Since the telephone does not fit into the existing frameworks, the general response of the field has been for the most part to ignore it. What is particularly disturbing about this tendency to exclude the telephone is that "this exclusion is not merely casual, but active and positive" (Garnham 1992, p. 349). Communications scholars find the vocabulary, concepts, and issues related to the telephone rather technocratic and alien to traditional communications research. There is almost an aesthetic aversion to the telephone and the associated mode of thinking that is seen as encroaching into the traditional domain of communications research (Garnham 1992). Consequently, communications scholars have left the field open for economists, engineers, and lawyers to occupy.

Today, we have a situation where communications is almost totally marginalized in the enormously important debates about the future of the public telephone network. It is ironic that communications scholars have shied away from studying issues related to a technology which will serve as the primary platform for communication of information, the very subject of their study, in the emerging information economy (Garnham 1983). As Noam (1993) warns, "when a discipline that is by now fairly substantial in terms of numbers and maturity is largely absent in the shaping of society's treatment of the very subject of its study, one must take note" (p. 200). In the long run, the field has no choice but to expand its focus to include telephone related technologies just to stay relevant in the new technological order. The question is whether it will gracefully accept the inevitable and use it as an opportunity for assuming a leadership role in an emerging area or be dragged into it kicking and screaming. The latter choice has a steep price as we by default allow economists and lawyers to define the framework for current and future debates.

After having made the case for greater involvement of communications in telephone research, the question arises about the nature of contribution it could make. At the simplest level, communications research can counteract the technocratic tendencies of economics and legal research towards "instrumental, applied forms of research, adopting an administrative orientation that is grounded in an atheoretical futurism, that focuses principally on problems of technical capacity and promise, and that approaches policy questions largely in economic and market terms" (Rowland 1993, p. 208). Communications research can greatly enlighten the public policy discourse by reframing the issues in ways that make the value systems underlying the technocratic solutions open to debate (Samarajiva 1990a, 1990b, 1992, Sawhney 1996). In general, communications research can make the seemingly technical issues socially and culturally problematic by providing the appropriate historical context for both the problems and their potential solutions (Rowland, 1986, 1993).

One of the biggest blind spots of economics and law is their inability to provide a vision for the future. In fact, the future is the proverbial slippery slope for all academic disciplines. While both the past and the present willingly yield verifiable empirical facts and hence are subjects of intense study, the future is a problem because it does not exist yet. However, in the realm of practice, the future is of utmost importance because the actions of regulators, courts, telephone companies, and others are guided by some notion of the future, no matter how crude. If communications scholars would like to enhance the quality of these decisions and guide them towards socially desirable ends, they need to help shape these images of the future.

In a period of incremental change, the problem is relatively manageable as researchers can extrapolate past trends into the future. However, in times of rapid and often radical change, the future becomes very problematic. How can communications researchers address future related questions? Quite obviously, in the realm of the future, communications researchers or for that matter anybody else cannot provide definite answers. However, they can either project scenarios or develop heuristic devices for thinking about the future. Such work can potentially serve an "enlightenment" function by inducing policy-makers to ask new questions and look at the problem from different perspectives (Samarajiva 1994).

While the question of future clearly requires us to employ our faculties of imagination, we cannot allow any figment of someone's imagination to pass as research. Can one be rigorous and imaginative? If not, what should be the criteria for evaluating imaginative research? This kind of an exploration would be almost impossible in a well-established discipline with its set conventions. Communications, on the other hand, provides a more open, flexible, and accommodating environment for such discussions. In addition, the coexistence of social scientific and humanistic traditions within communications creates a fertile ground for the germination of unconventional ideas. If we are able to address these questions related to future-oriented research, we will make a unique contribution that will have widespread impact beyond communications.

Finally, we should use the multidisciplinary nature of our field to our greatest advantage (Garnham 1983, Melody & Mansell, 1983; Mueller 1995, Noam, 1993). The issues raised by the telephone do not oblige us by fitting into our neat theoretical categories but instead disrupt disciplinary patterns of thought. Issues such as universal service and privacy cry out for profound solutions that often require integration of concepts from humanities, social sciences, and legal scholarship. Within this context, the telephone can act as a catalyst for large scale integration across different domains of knowledge. As Mueller (1995) points out, "The field of communication, therefore is well situated to develop a synthesis appropriate for the new age. One of the real strengths shown by the field over the years has been its flexibility, its willingness to redefine itself to keep pace with change. This flexibility should now be put to good use" (Mueller 1995, p. 468).

In sum, the telephone is important not because it is the latest technology to capture our imagination but because it a vehicle for the introduction of new ideas into our discipline which can blossom into truly unique contributions to human knowledge.

II. The Volume

While the discussion in the previous section provides a sense of where the field ought to be going, this section offers an overview of the volume which in many ways is a measure of how far we have actually come.

Communications studies on the telephone tend to operate at different levels of abstraction. On the one hand, there are studies which look at telephone-related issues within the context of global information flows, telecommunications deregulation, international economic order or some other macro analysis of a communications related phenomenon (Cherry 1978, Mosco 1988, Samarajiva & Shields 1990a, 1990b, Sussman 1984). On the other hand, there are case studies which focus on specific technologies, applications, or countries(Akhavan-Majid 1990, Akwule 1992, Bell & Meehan 1988, Dunn 1995, Gregg 1992, Hudson 1984, Sawhney 1992, Schmandt, Williams, & Wilson 1989, Snow 1982, van der Staal, Grassmuck, & Hatta 1995). While the first set of studies often provide powerful insights, their analysis is so macro that the peculiarities of the telephone get overlooked. Conversely, the second set of studies are rich in details but tend to be, with notable exceptions, somewhat descriptive in nature. This volume foregrounds the work of communications scholars who work at a level of abstraction somewhere in the middle of these two extremities because they deal with issues specifically related to the telephone but in a fairly conceptual way.

In terms of the background of the contributors, the volume includes works of communications scholars of all hues. Robert LaRose is a social scientist interested in the behavioral aspects of telephone and other communication technologies. Robert Hopper is a speech communications scholar. Jorge Schement is a telecommunications policy scholar with a social scientific background. Steve Wildman is an economist who has made communications his home discipline. Robin Mansell and W. Edward Steinmueller are political economists. Jim Danowski and George Barnett are social scientists with special interests in network analysis, and Jun-Ho Choi is the former's student. Harmeet Sawhney is a telecommunications policy scholar who works at the intersection of a number of disciplines. Although Ruby Roy Dholakia, a marketing professor, and Aharon Kellerman, a geographer, are not technically communications researchers, they both have had a long association with our field. The great diversity in the background and interests of the contributors is reflected in the topics covered in the volume. They range from chapters on telephone usage and conversation to pricing of interconnection to structure of international telecommunications networks.

The diversity in the backgrounds of the contributors and the range of topics covered is quite remarkable. It is worth noting that while Pool's volume was a collection of chapters by scholars from about ten disciplines, the chapters in this volume are the work primarily of communications scholars and yet the range of issues and perspectives covered is of a comparable level. This wide range in scholarship would be unimaginable in almost any other discipline.

III. The Chapters

The chapters in this volume have not been organized into subsections because they cover a wide range of topics and therefore do not fall into neat categories. They, however, cluster around a few themes which provide the organization schema of sorts for the following overview of the different chapters in the volume.

Earlier, the telephone was basically a conduit which transported information from one end to the other. Today, the telephone can add "value" to the information transfer process by allowing an element of control which was not previously available. The examples of enhanced control range from the call waiting beep which tells you that somebody else is trying to call you to the voice messaging system that delivers your message at an assigned time. The ramifications of all these smart features of an increasingly computerized network on human behavior are explored in the chapters by LaRose and Hopper. The former looks at how we use telephones and the latter examines how we talk over the telephone.

As LaRose points out, in the past, the limited amount of research which was conducted on telephone usage concentrated almost entirely on telephone adoption behavior. The unit of analysis for this research was the household. It is only recently that researchers have started looking at how individuals use telephone. LaRose's chapter provides an extensive review of the emerging literature in this area as it includes research conducted from economics, psychoanalytical, uses and gratifications, sociological, and social learning theory perspectives. While the economic studies try to predict the effects of price, house-hold income, and other demographic variables on telephone demand, the psychoanalytical studies explore the subconscious influences that shape how individuals use telephones. The uses and gratifications studies look at how telephone behavior gratifies psychological and social needs. The sociological studies examine telephone usage behavior within the context of the network of social relationships within which the user is immersed. They include critical studies which analyze how power structures and social domination influence the use of telephones by weaker sections of the society. The social learning studies seek to understand how individual learn to use telephones via trial and error and observation of others. The chapter ends with a discussion of the blindspots of the different paradigms and how researchers can work around them.

While LaRose's chapter is wide ranging in its scope, Hopper's chapter focuses specifically on telephone conversation. Furthermore, instead of trying to cover the entire literature on telephone conversation, it provides an in-depth analysis of four important areas of research: (1) telephone vs. face-to-face conversation, (2) the impact of telephone on how we think about communication, (3) conversation analysis of telephone talk, and (4) the effect of new telephone-based technologies on human interaction. The first section provides insights into how lack of non-verbal cues in a telephone conversation influences turn length, interruption, pause length and other discourse features as compared to a face-to-face conversation. The second section draws on works of Saussure, Twain, and Shannon to show telephone's influence on how we model the communication process. The third section on conversation analysis examines how people establish communication in telephone openings, which are the first few seconds of any telephone encounter. The research on telephone openings is reviewed at considerable length because this research exemplifies research on conversation-analytic studies of telephone conversations in general. The fourth section discusses how call waiting, voice mail, answering machines and other new technologies have changed patterns of human interaction. Overall, the chapter provides rare insights into an everyday practice we take for granted.

The telephone network is one of the most complex socio-technical systems created by humans beings. Although there is no clear line between the system and the environment within which it is embedded, if it were ever possible to separate the "inside" of a system from its "outside," Wildman's chapter focuses on the former and Sawhney's on the latter. Wildman's chapter looks at interconnection issues which greatly influence the organization of the public telephone network. Sawhney's chapter examines the impact of the "outside" factors on the development of infrastructure networks in the U.S. and Canada.

Wildman's chapter looks at the complexities of the pricing of interconnection between competing networks; an issue which will to a large degree define the character of the "inside" or the operational core, in both technical and social sense, of the telephone system. In the predivestiture era, interconnection was not an issue because local telephone networks were owned and operated as monopolies. In today's competitive environment with multiple networks, interconnection is essential for ensuring universal connectivity among telephone subscribers. Interconnection related issues are exceedingly complex because their resolution requires a level of technical and managerial cooperation among competing corporations which is unique to the telephone industry. Among other issues, pricing of interconnection, the focus of this chapter, is a particularly vexing problem because even though it is desirable from the society's perspective it creates unequal benefits for the interconnecting networks. While the entrant typically benefits considerably from it, the incumbent has little to gain and perhaps a lot to loose. Within this context, the pricing of interconnection is critical because it compensates the incumbent for the unequal benefits of interconnection. Wildman's chapter deals with the question how the price for interconnection should be determined and suggests new ways of resolving the problem. It specifically looks into three aspects of the the pricing issue: (1) the compensation that is due to the incumbent for providing interconnection to the incumbent, (2) the recovery of interconnection costs from the interconnecting networks and incumbent's end customers, and (3) determining the price of interconnection when the interconnection is between facilities-based competitors.

Sawhney's chapter is part of an ongoing program of research in which he expands the frame of reference beyond telecommunications to railroads, highways, electricity, telegraph, and other infrastructure networks. This research is based on the thesis developed in his earlier work on the U.S. that different infrastructure networks follow a similar development pattern because they have a similar "internal logic," and the "external logic" of the sociocultural environment remains stable over time. In this chapter, Sawhney studies the development of infrastructure networks in another sociocultural context¼Canada¼and compares it with the U.S. pattern. His research shows that like the U.S., Canada has an infrastructure development pattern which is distinctively Canadian. In the U.S. the process is internally generated and chaotic. There is a free-for-all competition between competing regions and rival corporations. The pace of infrastructure development is extremely rapid but haphazard. On the other hand, in Canada the process is externally stimulated and reactive. The tempo is frantic and anxious but organized and orderly as government supported monopolies or quasi-monopolies, rather than a freewheeling market, serve as the main vehicle for the development of its infrastructure. Yet, the two patterns are intertwined in an asymmetrical manner which is peculiar to the North American continent. Domestic competition drives the development of infrastructure networks in the U.S. which in turn forces Canada to develop its own so as to counter the expansionary tendency of its southern neighbor. From a theoretical standpoint, the recurrence of a distinctively Canadian infrastructure development pattern which is consistent across technologies supports the thesis and provides the basis for additional research in other sociocultural environments.

Dholakia and Mansell & Steinmueller chapters examine the competitive positions of different systems in the marketplace. The two chapters complement each other as they both analyze how a system can gain a competitive advantage in a market at different levels of abstraction. While Dholakia examines the marketing strategies a telephone companies can adopt to secure a competitive advantage, Mansell & Steinmueller look at the competition between groups of industries with similar characteristics. In both cases, the users play a decisive role in the success of one company or industry over others.

Dholakia's chapter provides an overview of the marketing strategies adopted by different telephone companies and discusses the relevance of established marketing theories for marketing of telecommunications and other high-technology products and services. Dholakia argues that, in the complex world of telecommunications, choosing the target market is not enough for telephone companies because they should also strategically choose the competitors to "go against, ally with or step around" and have a brand image which is appropriate for different stakeholders. She illustrates the importance of these choices by discussing the successes and failures of actual choices made by different telephone companies. She also discusses the challenges posed by the compressed product development cycles of telecommunications services to established marketing theories, which is based on a conception of the marketing process that starts with anticipation and interpretation of customer needs and eventually leads to product development. In the case of telecommunications and other high-technology products and services, market realities call for a reverse sequence of events which starts with rapid prototyping and experimentation. This kind of trial and error marketing in turn requires low cost marketing strategies because the future is highly uncertain. The old ideals of systematic market roll outs are not feasible in the new environment. Dholakia's chapter suggests that the perplexing problems raised by telecommunications services are likely to stimulate new thinking in marketing.

While Dholakia's chapter deals with competitive strategies of individual firms, Mansell & Steinmueller deal with competitive issues at much higher levels of aggregation. According to their perspective, the future shape of information society will to a large extent be determined by how the current competition between incumbent elite, insurgents, and virtual communities is resolved. The incumbent elite are the public telephone, cable, and audiovisual companies which control the existing communications infrastructure. The insurgents are companies growing out of the computer software mold¼Microsoft, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and others¼who are competing to create the architecture of information systems. Virtual communities are voluntary associations of individuals and institutions who get together to create networks of mutual interest. Quite obviously, the three "configurations" have different strengths and weaknesses specially in critical areas such as service and distribution market powers. However, the contest will not be decided solely on their strengths and weaknesses as user groups will play a critical role in deciding the final outcome. Mansell & Steinmueller break the user groups into 5 categories: global business, small and medium sized enterprise, consumers, education, and public service. They analyze the interactions between the service providers and user groups and gage the likelihood of the future outcomes. Although Mansell & Steinmueller's analysis is quite obviously unable to provide definitive answers, it provides a strong conceptual framework for thinking about the future.

Both Danowski & Choi's and Barnett's chapters deal with socioeconomic formations or structures. Danowski & Choi study the impact of technological convergence on the structure of the communications and information industries. Barnett analyzes the relationship between the structure of international telecommunications and the structure of the larger world system within which it is embedded. Both the chapters employ network analysis techniques to examine the structural characteristics of the relationships which they seek to study.

Danowski & Choi's chapter deals with "convergence" which is a much bandied about term. It is evoked to explain almost any aspect of the rapidly changing telecommunications scenario. Yet, not many people have systematically studied the convergence phenomenon. The term is used very loosely in both scholarly and popular discussions on emerging telecommunications environment. Danowski & Choi make an important contribution in their chapter by empirically studying the changes in the industry structure brought about by convergence. They examine mergers and acquisitions in communication and information industries from 1981 to 1996. They use data reported in trade publications to conduct network analysis which looks at the relationship between firms in different sectors within the communication and information industries. Thereby they chart out the structural changes resulting from the convergence phenomenon within the communication and information industries. By mapping out the evolving "convergence" terrain, they provide the basis for a more informed discussion and provide a foundation for subsequent work on convergence related issues.

Barnett analyzes the structure of international telecommunications from the world systems perspective. Traditionally, the world systems theorists have all but ignored information flows among the nations of the world. Only recently have they started looking at the relationship between global political-economic structures and information flows. In this chapter, Barnett reports the findings of a study in which he uses techniques of network analysis to examine the changes in international telecommunications traffic between late 1970s through early 1990s. His analysis indicates that although the international telecommunications network has become denser, more centralized, and more highly integrated, the basic structure of the network has not changed. In other words, the international relations forged during the industrial age have endured into the so-called information age. These findings go against the commonly held assumption that the process of globalization is bringing about a paradigm shift in international relations. According to Barnett's findings, if these changes are indeed occurring, they are not yet visible in the structure of international telecommunications.

The last two chapters by Schement and Kellerman look at two very different things. Schement provides new insights into universal service issues which have long shaped the development of the telephone network. Kellerman examines the impact telecommunications technologies have on the structure and organization of human activity across space.

Schement's chapter is concerned with universal service policies which seek to extend telephone service to the entire population. Ever since the beginning of competition in the telecommunications industry, there has been a persistent fear that competition will undermine the system of subsidies which have supported universal service over the years. Many papers have warned us of the growing gap between the "information rich" and the "information poor," spelt out its consequences, and explained the benefits of universal access. This literature has had considerable impact as universal service is now center stage in the public policy arena. While this macro-level analysis has succeeded in highlighting the problem, it has generally not provided solutions for it. One of the major reasons for the lack of success is that the policy makers and researchers have tended to look at the problem at the aggregate level. Schement's chapter takes a closer look at the problem. He examines the characteristics of Americans without home telephone service by analyzing data from the decennial census of the United States, the Current Population Survey of the Census Bureau, and FCC research reports. Schement's chapter shows that the picture looks very different bottom-up: the problem is far more varied and context-dependent than what a macro analysis would suggest. Americans without telephones defy easy categorization because of their complex demographic and economic characteristics. He argues that solutions require policies which go against the convention wisdom which for long has guided universal service policies.

Geographers who have long dealt with population and commodity flows find telecommunications problematic because of the intangibility of information. The problem is further aggravated by the lack of publicly available data on the number, length, origins and destinations of telephone calls. It is only recently that geographers have started studying telecommunications in a concerted way. Kellerman's chapter provides the sum and substance of what we know about the geography of telecommunications. The chapter is organized in three sections. The first one explains some basic concepts related to the geography of telecommunications. The last two deal with: (1) sociospatial characteristics of telecommunications, and (2) information flows. The discussion on sociospatial characteristics dwells on the question whether or not telecommunications will homogenize space in terms of human activity and culture. Correspondingly, it also considers the question whether telecommunications will lead to centralization or decentralization of economic activity. The section on information flows discusses the different types of information flows and the characteristics which differentiate them. It also discusses the barriers to information flows and the flow patterns that are likely to emerge in the future.

Although the ten chapters in this collection cover a diverse range of topics and perspectives, the volume is far from comprehensive. Among other things, it has a marked bias towards the U.S. experience. In spite of the fact that a number of chapters encompass international issues, the international dimension is somewhat weak. Also, it does not include chapters on quite a few important topics. On the other hand, there is almost no overlap between the different chapters in this volume and hence it is difficult to imagine a wider coverage of issues without a corresponding increase in the number of chapters. Overall, the volume covers considerable territory and offers a pretty good overview of the current state of research. We hope it will provide a useful building block for subsequent work in this area.

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