European Union telecoms R&D is at a crossroads. The EU's current R&D programme, the fourth framework, will finish this year, and what happens next is the question many, inside and outside the European Commission, want answered.
Advanced Communications Technology and Services (ACTS) is the telecoms programme within the 1994-98 fourth framework. But plans for the next raft of EU-funded R&D, the 1998-2002 fifth framework, do not include a specific telecoms programme.
Senior ACTS manager Peter Johnson said: 'I know not having a specific programme makes people feel uneasy, but the point is that communications is an integral part of the overall programme.
'We have felt for some time that it is right to bring Esprit (computer R&D), ACTS and Telematics (sector-specific information and communication technology applications) under one roof. This will allow us to slice the cake in a different way,' he said.
Patrick MacDonald, a telecoms expert at the UK's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), said: 'The DTI was in the vanguard of trying to get the commission to coordinate its R&D efforts.
'In the fourth framework you have the ridiculous situation of telecoms and IT R&D being run by four different directors, split between Brussels and Luxembourg, therefore with four different objectives, and four different programmes,' he said.
The fourth framework programmes will move under one catch- all heading, Information Society Technologies (IST). The commission's proposed IST budget was 3.925 bln ecu, against a combined 3.626 bln ecu for the three fourth framework programmes, but this was whittled down to 3.363 bln ecu at last week's meeting of EU research ministers.
Some players in the telecoms sector have said the lack of a specific programme in the next framework means telecoms R&D has slipped down the commission's list of priorities.
Johnson said: 'Although there is no single key action for telecoms, a lot of what we do in ACTS will be in IST's fourth key action: UMTS, multi-media, optics, and so on. There will be elements in the third key action, and electronic commerce and teleworking will be in the second key action,' he said.
But the DTI's MacDonald said: 'The one fear in the back of my mind is that some people in the commission seem to think the internet is the answer to all of Europe's communications infrastructure needs.
'The fact that it is really just a collection of telephone lines has not really percolated through to some of them yet,' he said.
Before DGXIII (the commission's telecoms directorate- general) can fully turn its attention to the fifth framework it must conclude the projects currently underway in ACTS.
One project, FRAMES (Future Radio Wideband Multiple Access Systems), played a major role in developing the compromise standard agreed at the end of January by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) for the next generation of mobile telephony, or Universal Mobile Telecoms Services (UMTS).
FRAMES brought together three major telecoms manufacturers - Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens - plus a host of universities and research institutions.
The objective was to develop a multiple access scheme which fufilled the clearly-defined UMTS requirements for high bit data rate capability, spectrum efficiency and backward compatibility with GSM.
Werner Mohr, an R&D expert for Siemens and FRAMES co- ordinator, said: 'The main goal was to support ETSI in finding industrial consensus, and there are a number of issues that need clarifying, and we must now go to the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) in June with a lot more detail,' he said.
'Ericsson and Nokia have admitted to the commission that UMTS came out of EU R&D in about 1993. The technology was there, but European manufacturers weren't looking and the Japanese picked it up,' a DGXIII source said.
Konidaris said: 'This is a unique feature of EU R&D, and a great example of subsidiarity at work. We can create a polyphonic environment which brings both consensus and critical mass. Nowhere else in the world can you do this.'
While EU R&D in the mobile sector has been fruitful, there are other areas DGXIII officials have pin-pointed for attention in the fifth framework, including teleworking and electronic commerce.
But this has not been welcomed by all. The European Public Telecom Network Operators' Association (ETNO) has asked the commission to give IST's second key action, 'new methods of work and electronic commerce', a low priority.
An ETNO document said: 'Without 'seed corn' research in technologies and infrastructure, European industry will be disadvantaged in the future.
'In particular, R&D on photonic networking technologies, network interworking and interoperability, and service engineering need to included in the programme,' it said.
DGXIII's Spiros Konidaris said that research into photonic technologies would continue in the IST programme with the same high priority it has had in ACTS. He also stressed the huge potential benefits optical networks will bring.
'Photonics will be a quantum leap forward, and 2005-2008 is a realistic goal for roll-out. The move to photonics will be far more important than the shift from analogue to digital. The improvement in capacity will be to a factor of 1,000,' he said.
Photonic technology has been a source of considerable pride in European R&D circles, but Konidaris admitted Europe has lost any lead it once held over the US.
'There was a feeling a few years ago that we were ahead by maybe a year, but the U.S. has been pushing the developments in networks recently,' he said.
Konidaris is convinced there will be a smooth transition for photonics R&D between the fourth and fifth frameworks, and is equally certain that the high expectations for photonics- based 'transparent highways' are realistic.
'I am convinced that there is absolutely nothing else out there this exciting, apart from maybe telepathy, and we haven't done any R&D on that. Yet,' he said.
But if photonics research is progressing, another DGXIII pet technology, Asynchrous Transfer Mode (ATM) broadband transport protocol, has yet to gain the critical mass of support many within EU R&D circles were hoping for.
According to commission R&D managers, ATM is the only system for data transfer that offers speed and bandwidth on demand.
One ACTS project, JAMES, has tested ATM-based broadband services and applications on experimental cross-border networks. DGXIII's Spiros Konidaris said JAMES, which will finish in March this year, has been a complete success.
'We have to pull back now. We can support, but we cannot interfere. If there is more R&D to do, or problems at the ITU level, we could maybe intervene,' he said.
But ACTS manager Johnson is frustrated with the delay in getting ATM services off the ground in Europe.
'I have no doubt that if we were starting from scratch today, we would invent something like ATM. Perhaps the Internet's capacity needs will provide the push ATM needs,' he said.
On this last point the DTI's Patrick MacDonald agrees. He said that bandwidth-hungry Internet applications like high- quality voice telephony and video transmissions will prove to be beyond the capabilities of TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), ATM's main rival.
'The present thinking is go with IP, but I think in two or three years people will realise that basic IP cannot cope with some of the more complex applications, particularly voice telephony,' he said.
Despite ETNO criticism that the commission is pitching its fifth framework R&D priorities too close to the market place, DG XIII's Konidaris is adamant that experimental and long-term research remains the commission's objective.
'Our role is clear, we must always look to the future. We cannot stop thinking of new alternatives, that would be like the ostrich with his head in the sand,' he said.
But while ETNO calls for visionary R&D, commission R&D managers are worried about the decreasing participation in research projects of operators.
One DGXIII source said: 'A concern at the moment is the absence of operators who were once significant players in R&D. After liberalisation the core activity of the operators is certainly not developing new technologies.'
Exactly which new technologies will be developed in the IST programme is the subject of much debate. DGXIII is currently finalising the terms of the last set of ACTS contracts, which will take the present R&D budget into 1999.
Now that the fifth framework budget has been set at 14 bln ecu (the European Parliament will vote on the Council of Ministers' compromise agreement in April), the details will at last be addressed.
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