Book review: Telecosmos: The Next Great Telecom Revolution, by John Edwards

originally posted elsewhere: January 12, 2005

tl;dr: And you thought John Edwards was a rich ambulance chaser...

Rest assured, the John Edwards who wrote Telecosmos is almost assuredly not the multimillionaire trial attorney who ran on the undercard of the Democratic ticket for US President in 2004. This John Edwards is a journalist with a lifelong delight in and passion for advances in telecommunications technology. This passion was no doubt requisite in order for him to compile the material for this book (some of which is truly esoteric). A similar passion is also a requirement for the reader, in order to make it to the end.

Telecosmos does not live up to the potential it could have achieved because John Edwards misses the opportunity to create a book that appeals to and inspires the masses. He is correct in his main thesis, which is that the telecom bust the industry has endured from 2000 to 2004 is but a pause in the long-term advancement of communications technology, products and services. The telecom industry is far from mature (we don't even have widespread video telephony, as first shown at the 1964 World's Fair), and there are major advances coming in the future, as soon as they can be moved from the lab to the real world.

A book cover with the title and author's name, featuring an image of a large dish antenna pointed towards the night sky, with stars and cosmic dust in the background

But instead of presenting a coherent vision for what this future will look like (which admittedly would be hard for a journalist to do), Telecosmos pretty quickly turns into a survey of government funded telecom research projects. Reading Telecosmos is a bit like reading one NSF grant abstract after another, with very little overall context in which to fit everything together. Some of the research projects overlap with each other, but because Edwards is not a world-class telecom expert, he takes each project's stated aims at face value, and doesn't attempt to pick winners or losers. Furthermore, because the book was hurriedly assembled in order to be maximally topical, it contains a fair number of typographical errors and other small factual errors.

Telecom industry insiders have watched Bell Labs, formerly the nation's premier research institute, slowly be dismantled over the past 20 years due to the ongoing breakup of AT&T. Much of the "pure" and "applied" research formerly done at Bell Labs is now done within the confines of our nation's research universities, and many former Bell Labs scientists have joined the faculties of academic institutions. So today, to learn what future telecom technologies may make their appearance in products over the next 10 to 20 years, John Edwards is correct to focus on what is happening in academia.

Bottom line: if you are only mildly interested in the latest telecommunications technology, you are likely to find Telecosmos to be too dry and detailed. If, however, you are in the telecommunications industry and would benefit from reading a survey of many of the most advanced telecom-related projects underway in academia, then Telecosmos is a reasonable book to read, flaws and all.