Clocking the minutes
SINCE the birth and subsequent proliferation of the telephone, any statistical analysis of the telecommunications industry has tended to quantify physical infrastructure.
For people who care about these things - which generally means equipment manufacturers - the industry has always been measured in terms of the number of phones per capita, exchange lines per capita, or in the physical capacity of things like undersea cables or satellites.
These statistics have long been useful as indicators of economic development (and, therefore, market potential), but not a whole lot else.
If we are in the throes of an 'information' revolution, then it is more than a little surprising that there have not been efforts so far to quantify the actual information.
Now that the telephone has proliferated internationally (along with all its data network offspring), far more relevant economic and social data is to be found by looking at how the information flows on these networks rather than the actual networks.
A new publication jointly researched by the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and a private research firm based in Washington D. C., TeleGeography Inc, has attempted to add some meaning to the international telecommunications networks by measuring the information that flows on them.
Reading telecommunications industry statistical data is generally as exciting as watching grass grow. But Direction of Traffic: International outgoing telephone traffic is full of interesting stuff.
Admittedly, you probably have to be fairly involved in the industry to really get excited about it, but it does contain the raw data from which 'important' conclusions can be drawn.
To TeleGeography president Gregory Staple, the fact there had been no genuine analysis of international traffic flows seemed incredible, so he set about collating that data himself.
The result is a minutely detailed set of statistics covering international telephone traffic route-by-route for the 10 years from 1983 to 1992.
The book covers 60 economies, which together account for about 95 per cent of the world's 600 million telephone lines and a similar proportion of its international telephone traffic.
If this is the information age, then the telephone networks are the international trade routes. According to Mr Staple, measuring the flow of data route-by-route revealed patterns in relationships of more than simply the commerce. It was a more general indicator of language, kinship and alliance.
The main unit of measurement used in Direction of Traffic (which calls itself DOT, to satisfy the industry's lust for acronyms) to measure traffic is Minutes of International Telephone Traffic (MiTT).
This is defined as the number of minutes of telephone conversation made from one country with a destination in another country.
Sounds nightmarish but it is not really. As might be expected, Hong Kong and China figure prominently in the book, simply because the growth in international traffic to and from both destinations has been spectacular.
Looking to the future, Mr Staple predicts Hong Kong and China's presence on the telecommunications scene will loom even larger.
In 1983, Hong Kong was the 20th largest generator of international telephone traffic with an annual 'output' of 95 MiTTs. By 1992, Hong Kong had grown to become the ninth largest generator of traffic with 1,137 MiTTs.
By 2000, Hong Kong is expected to become, quite amazingly, the third largest generator of international traffic at 10,300 MiTTs. This surely bodes well for Hongkong Telecom, given that the firm's international monopoly is valid until 2006.
The global significance of China telecommunications traffic is even more dramatic. In 1983, China was ranked 36th in the world, generating 36 MiTTs. By 1992, it had become the 16th largest, generating 635 MiTTs.
By 2000, China is expected to become the second largest generator of international traffic (second only to the United States), producing 12,000 MiTTs.
It is no wonder that you cannot swing a cat in Central without hitting a telecommunications executive these days.
And, yes, the ITU does know that China and Hong Kong will merge in 1997. It kept the markets separate for reasons of comparison only.