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Research Abstracts - 2007
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Communications Futures Program

David D. Clark, Karen Sollins & William Lehr


The MIT Communications Futures Program is an academic-industry consortium that was organized to study the future of the telecommunications industry. It is structured as an industrial-academic partnership to facilitate an exchange of academic and industry perspectives and to ensure its real-world relevance.It combines research methods and results from a number of laboratories, schools and centers at MIT, and the range of activities includes technical research, industry roadmapping, policy studies, and broader societal analysis. The goal is to identify, characterize and, as possible, mitigate some of the current barriers to investment and innovation in the communications sector.


The telecommunications industry is in disarray for a number of reasons, including the fallout of the dot-bomb downturn, the flight of venture capital, the resulting discount on the present value of sunk assets such as fiber, the economic tensions intrinsic to the business models of the Internet, and the need for cross-industry coordination. All these factors (each of which is a subject of study in its own right) combine to create a climate in which technical invention and venture start-ups have little relevance in defining the future.

We conclude that one of the core problems in the field is the necessity to solve complex coordination problems along the value chain of the industry. Looking at problems as divergent as Internet security or broadband rollout, we see that progress depends on agreement among several different sectors of the industry. So progress does not involve a focus on one set of players (for example ISPs, router vendors or the PC industry), but requires a broad look at all these sectors at once. We believe that it is critical to look at the state of the industry, both with the goal of helping to make progress in some key areas of coordination, and also to guide the research agenda of the participating laboratories at MIT. For our specific research to be relevant and effective, it is not enough that it be technically innovative. It must also be crafted taking into account the real-world constraints within which it will be utilized. We believe that even for long-range research with revolutionary goals, an understanding of real-world issues will improve the chances of having an impact on the world.


We have structured this effort as a horizontal program that spans multiple research groups at MIT, including CSAIL, the Sloan School and the Media Lab. In this way we can draw on and cross-fertilize the various projects, which range from technology development to business models and structural analysis of industry. We have structured the effort as an industry partnership so we can benefit from partners with real-world perspective and real-world needs. We encourage individual researchers, both faculty and students, who have a broader interest in the future of communications to become involved with our project as a part of their own work.


This program was launched about four years ago. Our work is organized around working groups, and the following groups are currently active:

  • Privacy and security in the Internet.
  • Wireless spectrum policy.
  • Value-chain dynamics: models for business and investment that foster a healthy core communications infrastructure.
  • Novel wireless architecture that allows for increased capacity as users join the system.
  • New architecture for the Internet.

The makeup of our working groups changes over time, and we are currently defining a group to look at issues of openness and interconnection in the Internet. The CFP is interested in identifying new industrial partners that would like to be part of its program of research.

Research Support

This research is supported by our industrial partners and by the National Science Foundation.

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