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Customers in Control

At least Lacouture doesn’t have to worry about whether the technology will work. Engineers at Verizon’s laboratories, especially its huge research quadrangle in Waltham, MA, have spent more than a decade looking at packet switching and know it can deliver. “We’re a reality check and a stability check,” says William C. Uliasz, director of Verizon’s optical transport network architecture group in Waltham.

The Waltham lab is where engineers developed a 12,000-page set of requirements for packet switches, to help manufacturers like Nortel develop products. It’s here that researchers attempt to bog down the fastest long-distance network on the planet – 3,000 kilometers of fiber rolled up into a couple dozen spools. And it’s here that software developers created the Universal Media Communicator, a program for desktop PCs that lets users seamlessly transfer calls from cell phones to wireless PDAs to traditional landlines to IP phones, without ever putting anyone on hold. One of the program’s myriad features represents separate phone calls as icons that users can drag and drop to initiate conference calls. The idea is to let the customers control their phone service – where calls reach them, say, or when and whether their phones ring.

It’s unclear how much of the Universal Media Communicator will show up in actual Verizon products; for now, the company is using it to inspire programmers at conventional software companies, including Microsoft, to develop applications for the Verizon network, says Michael Weintraub, director of converged services at the lab. “A lot of people think you want to blow up the public switched telephone network. But what you really want is this evolution” to Internet Protocol, Weintraub says. It isn’t that the current network is so bad – it’s just that packet-switched networks make everything faster, cheaper, and easier to use. And they turn the tables on who has control.

But will people pay for the new features enabled by packet switching? Come to think of it, what will people pay for, once voice calling is simply one entrée on a vast menu of potential services?

That’s still the big unknown. The phone companies are famously wrong about when customers will want things. AT&T first demonstrated the videophone in the 1960s. Ten years ago, phone companies thought ISDN was the path to broadband. Then DSL was supposed to be the high-speed enabler for video on demand but became mainly a way to browse the Web faster.

“We always guess wrong,” shrugs Verizon’s Elby. “So we know that we won’t come up with the killer app – but we’ll have the network to support it.”

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