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TELECOMMUNICATIONS—AN EVOLVING DEFINITION

How important is telecommunications as an industry, and how important is telecommunications research to the overall health of that industry? Underlying these questions are several others. How important is telecommunications to the U.S. economy and society? To what extent are U.S. consumers likely to benefit directly from telecommunications research in terms of new products and services that enhance their lives or improve their effectiveness or productivity? How much scope for innovation is there left in telecommunications, or has telecommunications matured to the point that it is merely a commodity service or technology?

The core findings of this study—which are supported throughout this report—are that the telecommunications industry remains of crucial importance to the United States as a society, that a strong telecommunications research capability continues to be essential to the health and competitiveness of this U.S. industry internationally, and that the health of this industry strongly affects the U.S. economy in many ways.

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Since Alexander Graham Bell invented his “electrical speech machine” (now known as the telephone) back in 1876, the telecommunications industry has evolved to include a wide array of products for both business and personal use. Below you will find several different types of telecom products and brief explanations of their different usage.

Like telecommunications itself, the telecommunications industry is broader than it was in the past. It encompasses multiple service providers, including telephone companies, cable system operators, Internet service providers, wireless carriers, and satellite operators. The industry today includes software-based applications with a communications emphasis and intermediate layers of software incorporated into end-to-end communication services. It also includes suppliers of telecommunications equipment and software products sold directly to consumers and also to service providers, as well as the telecommunications service providers

Before the emergence of the Internet and other data networks, telecommunications had a clear meaning: the telephone (and earlier the telegraph) was an application of technology that allowed people to communicate at a distance by voice (and earlier by encoded electronic signals), and telephone service was provided by the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Much of the U.S. network was owned and operated by American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T); the rest consisted of smaller independent companies, including some served by GTE.

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