Monday, April 06, 2009

The New Jersey Numbers Racket

(Way back in 2004, I ambitiously started a blog called Telecommedy with the intention of writing on it every day. I stopped writing there in 2005. C'est la guerre. In the interest of posterity and hubris, I am slowly moving those posts over here so that all of this inanity can be concentrated in a single forum and not pollute the intenets any more than necessary.)

Telcordia - the name strikes fear into the dark little hearts of accountants at both the equipment manufacturers and the phone companies throughout the U.S. telecom market. The best analogy that I've ever come up with for Telcordia is that it is the Mafia without the cuddly characters that make "The Sopranos" such wholesome family fun.

Before I go any further, let me state for the record and for anyone from Telcordia who might be reading this that I love Telcordia deeply and truly. If Telcordia were a woman I would abandon my family in pursuit of her up and until she swore out a restraining order against me. Please, please don't hurt me for anything that gets inadvertently typed here. It's the infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters thing in action, you know, and I certainly can't be expected to read - much less edit - everything that those simians expel into the ether.

Telcordia used to be called Bellcore in the days after the courts decided that AT&T, like Napolean, had too much power and broke it into lots of tiny Napoleans - still with too much power, but this time with the added attraction of really obnoxious attitude problems. After the breakup, Bellcore was like the smart girl in high school with the bad overbite: abandoned by all of the big-shot telephone companies who didn't want to be associated with her in public and certainly didn't want to appear to be going steady or anything like that, but supported on the side by a steady stream of tutoring revenue. In this analogy, the tutoring revenue was the money that Bellcore was paid by the telephone companies to be in charge of setting up standards and keeping the network software working, a job that it continues to do today under the much less comprehendable name "Telcordia".

Telcordia now has three main functions that it provides to the outside world - standards, operating systems, and selling you their services to be able to comprehend the first two functions. In terms of standards, Telcordia is still nominally in charge of nearly all of the standards used operate the telephone networks - and they have found a way to standardize just about anything. I would not be greatly surprised to discover that there is is working group within Telcordia trying to standardize the number of hairs allowed in a field technician's comb-over. There are standards for how fast equipment will burst into flames if exposed to a blowtorch (really), standards on how much light can reflect from the surface of shiny objects (yep, also true), standards on the formats of all signals that go through the network, standards on which standards to use, and standards on the format of standards. Every once in a while, usually coincidentally around the time that Telcordia needs a quick infusion of cash for a company party or something equally critical to the continuing quality of the telephone networks, Telcordia decides to re-issue the standards. They not only charge companies to participate in re-writing the standards (all the better to avoid actually working on the standard themselves), but they then charge everyone in the industry a fee to get the new version of the standard. It's a great racket - one that would make the Gambino family jealous in its audacity and ability to capitalize on the addictions of its victims - but it pales in comparison to the pure graft of their operating systems business.

When the AT&T monopoly was broken up by the still-reviled Judge Green in the 1980s (little known insider fact: saying the words "Judge Green" while using AT&T long distance will, on occasion, cause your telephone to explode), all of the new miniature monopolies decided to let Telcordia continue to be in charge of the software that runs the networks. That software, written in the 1970s using a combination of FORTRAN and a push-pull mechanical lever system, is still running the networks today. It is so huge and so embedded that removing it would be more difficult than extracting Microsoft from the international conspiracy for world conquest. Since this software is running every part of the network, any new features or new equipment that is developed must be integrated into the software before it can be used in the network, and that's the root of the evil that is OSMINE.

OSMINE stands for Operations System Modification for the Integration of Network Elements. Alternative readings include Old Systems Move Intelligent Newcomers Elsewhere and Our Stupid Moose Is Nearly Equine (the latter very rarely, and only in Canada). It is the labyrinthine process established by Telcordia to allow them to suck money directly from the bank accounts of anyone who has anything to do with providing a telephone connection to anyone anywhere in the United States. Say you're a company building telephone equipment and you've come up with a new piece of equipment that costs tons less, is half the size of the old equipment, and cleans up the environment by running on discarded gum wrappers and beer cans. You'd think that the telephone company would want to put that equipment into their network immediately, and they might indeed have that impulse. However, you, Mr. Equipment Provider, must first complete OSMINE. And OSMINE will take you over a year to complete and cost you (literally) millions of dollars. So, now that you've been bled dry by Telcordia, the equipment can be installed, right? Nope, now the telephone company must ALSO pay Telcordia for the updated versions of the software and then customize it to make it work with their particular network operations quirks. Yes, you read that right - Telcordia gets paid on both ends.

Gross Failure of Divine Supervision
But wait, there's more! Since the old software is so creaky, it has touble understanding new features - kind of like the trouble grandpa has understanding that aluminum foil should not be placed into the fancy new microwave. A terrific example, which has the unexpected benefit of being true, is when the equipment manufacturers sped up their equipment to support OC-192 (see Acronymphomania below for a worthless explanation of what OC-192 means). OC-192 was the first time that a three-digit number had ever been used, and the software couldn't handle it. In the real world, that wouldn't be such a big deal, but in Telcordia world that was a HUGE deal. It made them have to bring out the big guns - a GFDS (Generic Feature Development Something-or-other), which basically means that they had to charge everyone involved extra money for the effort of re-doing something fundamental in their systems and and hire some smart high-school programmers to change all of the "2"s in the programs to "3"s. Even today, nearly a decade later, Telcordia still charges extra for the OC-192 GFDS every time anything using that technology goes through OSMINE. And there are dozens of GFDSs on the books, and more showing up every year. It's a steady source of income - kind of like the Atlantic City casinos, but with less chance of the "customers" actually winning anything in return.

In Conclusion - or - Why Are You Still Reading?
The cost and trouble of going through OSMINE is one of the big reasons that so many telecomm companies ran out of money during the telecomm boom. (Another, much less important reason was the huge expense of handing out employee perks like free caffinated drinks, chocolate, and high-performance sportscars.) It's also a primary reason that few technology innovations make it through the bureacracy to the home user. Did you know that in Japan people regulary get home internet speeds of 40Mbps or higher? That's about 30 times faster than most DSL lines in the US and, for comparison, would allow a teenaged girl to download the entire Brittany Spears music collection in less than a minute and/or her father to download the entire Brittany Spears photo collection in under an hour. The latest offering from the local telephone companies may, just may, get home users up to a speed 20 times slower than Japan. Anything more is probably just too difficult to get through the system. But who really needs that bandwidth anyway? You'd probably just waste your time downloading porn or sharing music files or working from home or something.

On a final note, Telcordia was purchased recently (ok, several years ago) by a company named SAIC (Some Acronyms Incomprehensible Completely) which has, as its other primary business, contracting for the US Government. I really don't think it's necessary to even come up with a joke here. You can provide your own.

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