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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 US network was owned and operated by American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T); the rest consisted of smaller independent companies, including some served by GTE.

Then in the 1960s, facsimile and data services were overlaid on the PSTN, adding the ability to communicate documents and data at a distance — applications still considered telecommunications because they enabled new kinds of communication at a distance that were also carried over the PSTN. More recently, of course, communication at a distance
The NSF and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have been the two primary sources of federal telecommunications R&D support. NSF, long a supporter of telecommunications R&D spanning a range of topics, has recently been increasing its attention to telecommunications R&D, with an emerging emphasis on new approaches to networking. DARPA, which funded a number of important telecommunications advances in the past (including elements of the Internet itself), has been shifting its emphasis toward more immediate military needs and giving less attention to long-term telecommunications research.
A strong, effective telecommunications R&D program for the United States will require a greater role for government-sponsored and university research, and more funding of long-term research by industry. The committee recommends that the federal government establish a new research organization — the Advanced Telecommunications Research Activity (ATRA) - to stimulate and coordinate research across industry, academia, and government. ATRA would be a hybrid of activities of the sort historically associated with DARPA (which through the ARPANET program managed a research portfolio, developed a vision, and convened industry and academia to build what would become the Internet) and SEMATECH (which brought the semiconductor industry together, initially with some federal support to complement industry dollars, to fund joint research, development, and roadmapping activities). There are a number of options for where within the federal government such a program could fit, each with its own set of tradeoffs (see Chapter 4). For example, ATRA's proposed mission would align with that of existing agencies within the Department of Commerce, and NSF has developed mechanisms for joint academic-industry engineering research, albeit more focused and on a smaller scale.

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