Asia-Pacific Telecommunication Topics

A Report From the Front Lines

During the past two years, John Savageau has gone from being a Tokyo-based manager with regional interests and responsibilities to being an Asia-Pacific roving manager with occasional visits to Tokyo. In addition to accumulating lots of frequent flyer miles, he has gained some unique insights on the different trends in telecommunications throughout the Asia-Pacific region. This month, he shares some of his experiences with Computing Japan readers through edited excerpts based on his October 1994 travel log.

by John Savageau

Telecommunications is widely recognized as the frontier technology that will lead us from the quickly developing information society to the next stage: a communications society. Prominent Asia-Pacific business and economic publications, such as the Asian Wall Street Journal or the Economist, are filled with telecommunications-related stories and analyses, but these naturally focus on the "big picture." Some of my recent experiences, I think, can offer an additional perspective on other facets of the telecommunications industry, and on the business trends that are driving this industry. My travel logs generally come from the ground up, showing the end results of high-level corporate decisions that change the way business communications are accomplished within the enterprise.

Hong Kong (Oct. 1 to 6)

Hong Kong was host to a week-long event called "LAN-WAN Asia," which brought together experts in the field of telecommunications to present and discuss current local and wide area network technology and application development. When a scheduled speaker was forced to cancel from the frame relay forum, I was asked to fill in as well as to host a day-long workshop on frame relay applications and technology. Wide area networking technology, and the current status of the technology deployment, attracted widespread interest at the conference (just as it is currently doing in Japan). Particularly hot topics were frame relay (because it is generally available now) and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) as an emerging WAN protocol. ATM is still a couple of years away from public availability, but carriers are testing the protocol as a backbone transport option. As larger fiber systems, such as the TransPacific-5 (TPC-5), become available, carriers will begin to migrate their existing diverse circuits to LA (such as 256K bps for frame, 64K bps for packet switching, and voice leased lines) onto one large bandwidth "pipe" to promote greater efficiencies for international connections. ATM will handle all digital protocols, including voice, X25, and frame relay, by encapsulating them in ATM cells for rapid transport over the international links.

Many conference attendees were concerned that ATM would render frame relay obsolete in the near term. That concern was answered by the panelists with the assurance that not all users, nor carriers, will require the bandwidth needed to enjoy the efficiencies of ATM; frame relay will continue to be a powerful "sub" backbone protocol for the foreseeable future. Frame relay can also be seen as an access protocol to ATM: ATM will encapsulate all data, including frame relay packets, into the ATM protocol for transport over the network. The consensus of the conference was that it is best not to wait for international ATM, but rather to deploy frame relay now and then upgrade or feed into ATM as the ATM high-speed backbone becomes available.

My portion of the show was to first give a luncheon keynote address on the recent global carrier alliances (WorldPartners, Concert, Sprint/France Telecom/Deutsch Telekom), and then an all-day workshop on frame relay in conjunction with a colleague from Sprint's Sydney office. Although the workshop that we put together was billed as a current update on global frame relay innovation and deployment, the knowledge level and experience of the attendees turned out to be not as extensive as expected. The workshop ended up being a basic day-long tutorial on the concept of frame relay and how the technology is best used in the corporate environment.

Back in Tokyo (reflections)

I've noticed some big differences in the attitudes of LAN users among different countries and corporate environments over the past couple of years. Japanese multinational users, for example, are willing to discuss networking (both LAN and WAN), but they are generally hesitant and unsure of the technology and deployment of networking technologies within their corporate environment.

I recall a recent conversation with a frustrated employee of a large Japanese multinational who explained to me that his company had recently purchased a divisional LAN based on Sun SPARCstations. Now this is a robust, powerful, and expensive solution to a data networking requirement. Having used a similar system in a previous job, I immediately became excited about the potential of such a system, and wanted to know as much as possible about the applications the company had migrated to the LAN.

The answer both surprised and deeply depressed me. The reality was that, once the network was installed, the MIS department went back to their normal jobs and routines, while the potential system users dutifully covered the workstations in plastic and went on about their normal business.

Appalled, I asked, "do you mean these powerful workstations are not in use at all?" My friend answered that, well, a few of the secretaries were using the workstations for wordprocessing. . . . He also mentioned that he was shopping around for a new job.

I don't mean to imply that all (or even most) Japanese multinationals are incapable of using network technology. While there may be an inordinately large percentage of companies in Japan who are slow in adopting new networking technologies, there are plenty of companies that have not only adopted powerful LAN/WAN networking solutions, but who are even pushing the edge and driving the technologies. NTT, in particular, has cells of extremely dedicated, almost possessed, visionaries and engineers intent on propelling the Japanese telecommunications industry to the forefront of the information age. While I am sometimes critical of (and often disappointed by) the state of networking technology in Japan, I have utmost respect for the many dedicated engineers whom I encounter in my day-to-day activities.

Within the Asia-Pacific, the contrast to Japanese attitude is most visible in Hong Kong. Where a Japanese MIS manager will often bring the "show me and prove the technology" attitude to a meeting concerning upgrading or improving network technologies, Hong Kong MIS folks generally come to meetings having already done their homework. Many of the people I meet in Hong Kong know as much about my job as I do, and the direction of the meetings is more on the lines of, "How can you get the technology and connectivity to me today, using these parameters and configurations?"

I find it exciting to be pushed, pressured, and forced into delivering new technology, products, and services on the WAN. Hong Kong has been a much more active location in the deployment of sophisticated conferencing systems, EDI, store-and-forward applications, and (of course) TCP/IP.

While there is not quite the same aggressive level of activity seen in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand are also very aggressive in general acceptance and deployment of LAN/WAN-based internal/external data communications and enterprise applications. And once infrastructure development in other Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, catches up to the needs of the many multinational countries building factories and business ventures, watch for a new "feeding frenzy" of communciations activity.

Once inexpensive, reliable communications infrastructure in the developing countries catches up to the needs of industry, not only will current communications be greatly enhanced, but it will enable development and deployment of more radical change within the company, where the management finds even more ways to exploit the communications backbone capability of existing systems. This will open up even more requirements for education, general information literacy, and all the other pieces of the big picture needed to make a leading-edge, efficient company advance and succeed.

On NH906, from Beijing to Tokyo (Oct. 23)

Last Wednesday, I had plans to spend this weekend in Tokyo preparing for a business trip to Taipei and Kuala Lumpur. I was going to have the opportunity to "talk" Internet to several different groups, an activity I truly enjoy. Late Wednesday night, though, I received an emergency plea for assistance demonstrating Internet capabilities in Beijing for a government agency.

China is wrestling with the challenge of deploying its own information highway. Stay at any hotel in Beijing, and you'll have a chance to rub shoulders with representatives of most of the major international carriers, switch manufacturers, and applications vendors. China is acutely aware of the need to quickly develop its domestic communications infrastructure and is seeking the help of international vendors to get them through the initial phase. Just as important, China recognizes the need to collaterally create an education system capable of promoting information literacy and competence. Accomplishing widespread education while not having a communications infrastructure in-place is opening up many new opportunities, not only in the technology vendor business, but also in the education services business.

I find working with the Chinese an immense pleasure. During those times when I have needed to "roll up my sleeves" and get into some serious hands-on work, the Chinese have been some of the best students I have ever had. Many Chinese have enough knowledge of what is happening on the information highway outside of their borders so that they feel an obsession to vacuum the knowledge of anybody willing to teach them. The Chinese I have worked with from Beijing and Shanghai have been some of the most dedicated, intelligent, practical, and hardest workers I have ever met. It is impossible to foresee the political and economic future of China, but if the people I have met are a good indicator of the average capability of Chinese engineers, technicians, and managers, the country has an incredibly bright future.

From Kuala Lumpur (Oct. 29)

After three days in Taiwan, my feelings towards Hong Kong are starting to flash back. While a much smaller country than Japan, Taiwan has been able to make a big mark in the technology and data processing world. With companies such as Acer providing OEM computer components to about half the world, Taiwan is clearly a big factor to deal with in technology development and application deployment.

In communications ó specifically, Internet communications ó Taiwan currently accounts for nearly as much traffic transiting the US NSFNet backbone as Japan. As a somewhat politically isolated country, Taiwan is accustomed to fighting for its economic and political existence. The government sees communications and information infrastructure development as an essential part of Taiwan's struggle for independence and social survival.

After spending two days talking to a variety of people from both the commercial sector and the government, I am convinced that Taiwan is attempting to align all sectors to promote a common goal of a powerful national information infrastructure. Many of the people I talked to indicated their willingness to go outside of their own country's resources to gather a core of information literate academics and business folk to act as a catalyst to ensure this project's success. One way they are attempting to accomplish this is by recruiting expatriate Taiwanese who have emigrated and gone through the education system and corporate socialization of Western nations such as the UK, US, France, and Germany, where information technology literacy is generally higher than in Taiwan.

On NH002 to Washington, DC

There is just no way to escape the burgeoning interest in the Internet. Shortly after arriving in Malaysia, I picked up a copy of the local New Straits Times. One of the stories was a four-page description of how the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems was delivering Internet to both the academic/research community and the public. Although there are still only around 1,000 public users throughout the country, Malaysia is keen on promoting Internet use, and is trying to figure the best way to provide it to the Malaysian public.

The article's author, Ruby Khoo, quite elegantly described the challenge that new users face while attempting their first experiences on the Internet. "There is no substitute for being interactive on the Internet. So, drive, scroll, and execute your paces through the net. Like driving in Malaysia, it takes courage, experience, and skill to navigate the disorganized data or dialog banks of the net. But the more you drive, the more you find, and the faster you'll get around [and] know where you 're going, and know how to get there." Ruby is obviously no newcomer to the Internet.

I had the opportunity to present an introduction and overview of the Internet to a large group of Internet hopefuls in Kuala Lumpur. I used a generic presentation provided by the Internet Society. After finishing the Internet-specific portion of my presentation, though, we opened the floor for a general question and answer session. To my surprise, and much like in my recent visit to Taiwan, the technology was not the primary interest of the attendees. The people in Kuala Lumpur acknowledged that the Internet is currently a great way to easily communicate domestically and around the world, but their interest was more focused on how Malaysia could best build an information literacy infrastructure to take advantage of information technologies ó not this year, but for years down the road.

Topics like the K-12 programs in the US and Europe, community computing, and other user education programs were of great interest to the group. Of course, commercial industry use and deployment of networking technology was important to them, and bringing the internetworking technology to the general public as well as to commercial industry was an immediate concern, but this group was thinking more strategically.

Again, a very enjoyable day for me. I got to do what I like to do best ó talk about data communications, networking, and information literacy education development. What else could I ask for?

John Savageau is director, Asia-Pacific Operations, Sprint International. He can be reached via the Internet as