Slow Dancing in a Burning Room

May 4th, 2012
Joe McGarvey

For reasons unknown, contemporary generations often hold a fascination for the cultural bric-a-brac of a previous one. Twenty years from now, when social scientists look back at the second decade of this century, the resulting analysis will no doubt note an obsession with the pop culture of the 1980s.

While esteem for the 1980s as a “golden age” will perplex those old enough to have experienced the decade firsthand, there’s no denying that ‘80s nostalgia now abounds. Try turning on the radio without being serenaded by post-punk, eye-liner-adorned musical groups or flipping through the channels without a visual reference to what many social scientists have deemed the “me” decade.

Resurrecting The Cure, Poison or even Duran Duran is, of course, a completely innocuous pursuit. There’s nothing nefarious about reveling in pop cultures of the past.

Today’s harmless infatuation with all-things-80s, however, does not translate to the telecommunications domain. For fixed operators, at least, an enduring connection with the 1980s poses a serious threat to future financial health and customer satisfaction.

That connection, of course, is the TDM switching infrastructure that still shoulders responsibility for meeting the voice communications needs of millions of subscribers. Many of the monolithic TDM switches that line the edges of the PSTN and portions of its core are artifacts of the 1980s, with some even dating back to the late 1970s.

These legacy switches, though still delivering reliable services and generating substantial revenue, are steadily exceeding their designed lifecycle.  Like many of the surviving popular musical icons from the same era, the aging TDM infrastructure requires considerably more maintenance than it once did to stay in tune and is increasingly susceptible to performance disruptions.

While it may take another generation before nostalgia for the 1980s completely recedes, telecommunications operators don’t have the luxury of hanging on to their favorite artifacts for much longer. Operators need to start making a clean break with the past through network transformation to mitigate increasing risks of service disruptions that could result in revenue loss, customer dissatisfaction and even punitive damages. 

There’s much more to network transformation, though, than risk mitigation. Equally compelling benefits associated with replacing an aging network are dramatic reductions in operational expenses, as much as 90% in some instances, as well as the potential for new revenue, made possible by transitioning static TDM lines into the open and innovative all-IP environment. 



The network transformation movement is actually more than a decade old. Operators started replacing TDM switches in the core of their networks beginning in the late 1990s and have made significant progress toward revitalizing long-distance telecommunications networks with IP-based technology.

But impediments like costs and complexity associated with TDM-to-IP migration along with factors such as the risk of high profile outages, regulatory issues and the potential perception of alienating long-time customers by offering a service that no longer works or sounds like it did for decades, have impacted the pace of network transformation. But the biggest disincentive for operators to make expensive overhauls was the fact that the existing infrastructure, though much of it older than Madonna’s first single, was still humming along. Even if line counts were – and are – steadily falling, operators could get away with the status quo, the thinking in the early part of this century went, for at least a few more years.

But everything changes. Just as the Glam-Rock era gave way to Grunge and Hall eventually separated from Oates, operators have reached a point where they can no longer stand by while their TDM networks stagnate. Ironically, the justification for taking action now is similar in nature to the justification for idling in neutral in the past. There are plenty of creditable reasons for an operator to modernize their networks, such as unleashing the creativity of IP and reducing operational expenses, and one compelling one: today’s TDM network is old.

It’s absolute hyperbole to suggest that the TDM circuit switch network is no longer reliable and faces a quick extinction. Though many TDM switches have exceeded their life expectancy, they were designed and engineered to the highest standards and the prospect of substantial portions of the PSTN suddenly shutting down is essentially non-existent. The reality of the situation, though, is that many TDM switches, powered by decades-old chipsets and components, are far more susceptible to failure than they were even a few years ago. Adding to the urgency is a scarcity of replacement parts and trained technicians. 

The bottom line is that operators have delayed the replacement of their remaining TDM infrastructures for as long as they can.  With apologies to John Mayer, a contemporary recording artist who’s in for a popularity surge in 2030, service providers that continue to put off the replacement of their legacy networks are doing the metaphorical equivalent of slow dancing in a burning room. The urgency surrounding network transformation is clear. Operators cannot continue their foot-dragging without eventually stumbling.