COMPARING TELECOMMUNICATIONS AND TRANSPORTATION

Despite some similarities, transportation and telecommunications are fundamentally different. The key similarity is that both offer a means of achieving the interactions, transactions, and other relationships that make up human social and economic activity: conversations, meetings, teaching, helping, sharing, buying, selling, trading, and making agreements.

This similarity between telecommunications and transportation is very appealing and powerful. They are both means of connection. Not coincidentally, the cable pathways of telecommunications typically run next to roads and highways. The popular expression "information highway," used by journalists and government officials, captures the parallels between the two kinds of connective infrastructure.

Though "telecommunications may be thought of as the transportation of information" (Mokhtarian, 1990, p. 232), advanced telecommunications as applied in teleprocesses is in fact a much larger phenomenon than the movement of information. It includes storing, transforming, adding value to, filtering, and retrieving information as well. The richness of advanced telecommunications goes far beyond the simple transmission of an electromagnetic signal.

Telecommunications as "information transportation" semantically implies that information moved by means of telecommunications could have been moved in physical formats (such as documents or disks) via transportation. The phrase also implies that information that is being moved in transportation vehicles (for example, in the minds and briefcases of commuters on the freeway) could be moved just as well via telecommunications channels. There is some truth in both of these implications, of course, but not complete truth.

In fact, some telecommunications traffic does amount to information streams that were previously delivered by physical transportation. A worker faxes a report that used to go by messenger. A professional attends a mandatory meeting by teleconference rather than by driving across town. It is very clear, however, that the vast majority of telecommunications traffic would simply not happen if the information it carried in fact had to be delivered in transportation vehicles. A worker who makes twenty phone calls, sends five faxes, and sends or receives ten e-mail messages in a day is not replacing thirty-five personal journeys and document shipments that would otherwise have been made.

The second implication--that much physically transported information could alternatively be sent electromagnetically--is widely claimed in order to emphasize the opportunities for substitution of transportation by telecommunications. One can send a document through the Post Office or an overnight delivery service (transportation), or one can send a fax or an e-mail message (telecommunications). One can either visit another office to talk to someone (transportation) or make a phone call to take care of the same business (telecommunications). One can go out and buy the news as printed in a newspaper or magazine (transportation), or one can gain access to news services via television, touch-tone telephone, or computer modem (telecommunications). One drives to the store (transportation) or orders by phone (telecommunications).

The California State Department of Transportation defines mobility as "the movement of information as well as people and goods" (CalTrans, 1991). Pacific Bell, a regional telephone company serving California, presented a seminar in April, 1993 on "Telecommunications as Transportation" that used descriptors like "Pouring the Electronic Highway," "Information Transportation and the Changing Definition of Mobility," and "The Rubber Meets the Electronic Road" (Williams, 1993). These are innovative, pioneering ideas, but drawing a literal, physical analogy between telecommunications and transportation creates a danger of underestimating how much change is really possible.

A comparison lies in the history of company managers learning how best to use computers and robots to improve productivity. Task automation was the first response. In automation, the work that people do is replaced step for step by an equivalent use of the computer. For example, a metal-cutting tool operated by a person is now operated by a robotic machine, or a form completed by a person with a pen is instead filled out by a person entering data on a keyboard.

Yet, over the past decade, managers have come to realize that work processes need to be changed much more fundamentally than by automation if substantial productivity gains are to be realized. The most effective teleprocesses are now understood to require careful analysis of functional requirements, a redesign of work flows, and the implementation of new activity patterns around the unique capabilities of telecommunications and computers. The overall process of improvement has begun to be called reengineering (Davenport, 1993). Instead of automating production lines, we can redesign both the manufacturing processes and the products to be manufactured so that one machine does the work of ten. Forms are eliminated by having computers capture data directly from customers. Looking at telecommunications merely as a new form of mobility is reminiscent of using computers and telecommunications for marginal automation improvements.

Francois Bar has consistently pointed out the fundamental differences between telecommunications and transportation. "... while telecommunications networks [in comparison with transportation networks] also decrease information transmission time and costs, their most dramatic impact results from the fundamental reorganization of work processes ..." (Bar, 1990, p. 33).

Thinking of telecommunications as "information highways" is also reminiscent of the earlier characterization of automobiles as "horseless carriages," or train locomotives as "iron horses." A highway mind-set in thinking about telecommunications both limits the imagination about what is possible and becomes a source of errors. For example, overdrawing an analogy between the National Information Infrastructure and the Interstate Highway System can lead to frustrating puzzles about the telecommunications equivalents of freeway exit ramps, local streets, parking lots, and driving skills, whatever those equivalents may be.

New teleprocesses require new paradigms. Solving difficult problems requires defining problems in new and better ways. Redefining transportation to include "information mobility" and defining telecommunications as "information transportation" are new but not sufficiently better.

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