Recent advances in computer telecommunications have brought the world enticingly close to becoming the global village that the late Canadian communications guru Marshall McLuhan predicted. One major obstacle has stood in the way of reaching that goal of instant worldwide communication: the various telephone and data transmission systems around the world operate with different technologies, each competing with the other and requiring its own set of elaborate, expensive, specialized hardware. Many of those systems are incompatible. But now a sophisticated new universal system is being introduced that will not only replace some existing technologies but will dramatically expand the communications services available to business and households. Telephone companies around the world are joining forces to introduce a new technology called Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN).
The new system, which will allow any home and office to receive voice, computer and video signals simulta-
neously on existing telephone lines, will be available to businesses by 1990 and to homes a few years after that. The potential applications cover a wide range: ISDN will enable users worldwide to exchange messages through text and graphics, buy and sell goods and services, book theatre tickets, pay
A new worldwide com -munications system, known as ISDN, has the potential for revolutionizing social patterns
bills, place a bet, deliver a lecture or hold a business conference without having to leave their homes or offices. Said Andrew Toller, marketing analyst with Toronto-based Evans Research Corp., a company that monitors the communications and computer industries: “Today’s system is like a city with a lot of small roads—roads with
curves and dead ends. ISDN is like a superhighway, linking every house.”
In Canada, Bell Canada is pioneering the project, and the company has already launched customer trials in Ottawa for ISDN’s earliest applications—such as message services and so-called telecommuting, which links employees to their offices from home. Other telephone companies in Canada will undertake similar trials in the near future, with Telecom Canada, an association of 10 telephone and telecommunications companies, co-ordinating the results.
ISDN uses conventional phone lines which already service 700 million customers worldwide. As a result, it will be relatively inexpensive to set in place. Still, its proponents face several hurdles before that can be accomplished. For one thing, the system requires universal agreement on standards and services, but some companies have not yet agreed on the final details. As well, some industry analysts are uncertain whether consumers will want to make a wholesale switch to the services offered by a system that, if it is widely adopted, may revolutionize traditional social patterns.
The new system combines state-ofthe-art electronics with century-old telephone technology. And according to Brian Hewat, vice-president of marketing at Bell Canada, “It brings a level of connectability between the voice world and
the data world which does not exist today.” In a conventional telephone system, conversation flows through telephone wires on electrical waves. With ISDN, a silicon chip first translates voice into digital signals. The signals are then transmitted over the public telephone network and converted back to voice at the destination. Because telephones and computers would use the same digital mode, they could share the same phone lines—at the same time.
ISDN will be faster than current data transmission facilities.
At top speed, a 1,000-page book could be transmitted in about seven minutes, compared with seven hours with existing videotex systems—equipment that transmits text and graphics (see box). Said analyst Toller: “ISDN allows more capacity on a line and more information to pass through. It allows a videotex application to become more efficient.”
Telephone companies in Europe, Asia and North America are working to develop the universal network, which could make it as easy for a telephone user to transmit pictures and data as it is to place a phone call. So far, the participating companies have agreed on the
basic standards—enough to get ISDN under way—but standards for some of the extra features are still under discussion. Some telephone companies will have to bear the cost of converting their current systems to digital equipment.
The basic costs to Canadian consumers will likely not be much higher than they are now, but officials are uncertain
as to whether customers will use certain services enough to make them profitable. Indeed, some features that telephone companies provide now—such as audio and video teleconferencing between people in various locations—have not been popular. Some experts say that it is too expensive—and that many people prefer the sociability that face-to-face meetings provide. “At the right price it’s a wonderful product,” said Edward Goldstein, vice-president of the Cambridge, Mass.-based MAC Group, an international management consulting firm. “But will there be enough demand? That’s the major stumbling block.”
Despite those concerns, communications experts say that it is only a matter of time before 3 ISDN-type technology is established in homes and offices worldwide. Bell’s Hewat, for one, estimates that half of Bell Canada’s customers will have access to ISDN in their homes by the mid-1990s. When it becomes widely available, experts predict that telecommuting—which began about a decade ago with the proliferation of personal computers—will increase dramatically. Indeed, several U.S. companies are experimenting with home
offices for their employees, and by June, 1988, American businesses will be able to subscribe to ISDN. Said Jerry Campeau, regional director of the ISDN project for US WEST, a holding company with a major involvement in telecommunications: “Many companies want to experiment with telecommuting because of the high cost of maintaining office buildings. Some companies find that employees working at home are more productive.”
Bell representatives plan to meet with banks, insurance and credit card companies, encyclopedia publishers and hydro-
electric companies to expand the practical uses of the new technology. With such systems in place, a student would be able to research an essay at home by dialing up electronic versions of encyclopedias. One aspect of ISDN technology would allow a person who received a telephone call to see the number of the caller before answering. As a result, a stockbroker, for instance, could use such a system to call up the latest stock prices and the client’s file instantly on a
video terminal before even answering the phone. ISDN could also be used to transform the average home into what electronics specialists call a “smart house” by monitoring and automatically adjusting home heating and cooling, maintaining an alarm system and even watering the lawn.
Still, with some issues still unresolved, industry insiders have a running joke about ISDN, saying that the initials stand for “I still don’t (k)now.” But futurist Alvin Toffler, author of The Third Wave, predicts that technological changes such as ISDN will be accepted
and will present “a potential for social change so breathtaking in scope that few among us have been willing to accept its meaning.” It is still unclear, however, whether ISDN will turn office towers into “ghostly warehouses,” as Toffler has forecast. But it may sweep the world’s citizens into a future that even Marshall McLuhan did not envision.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.