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About Telecommunications Engineering

Field Overview

The telecommunications industry is at the forefront of the information age—delivering voice, data, graphics and video at ever increasing speeds and in a growing number of ways. Whereas wireline telephone communication was once the primary service of the industry, wireless communication services and cable and satellite program distribution are becoming increasingly dominant.

Telecommunications engineers design, develop, test, and debug software and hardware products for communications applications. These products range from modems and encoders to computer-assisted engineering programs for schematic cabling projects; modeling programs for cellular and satellite systems; and programs for telephone options, such as voice mail, e-mail, and call waiting.

Fields of Interest and Employment

Most telecommunications engineers work in large companies and in large cities. With continuing deregulation, however, the number of small contractors has been increasing.

The telecommunication field used to be dominated by providers of wired telephone service. Customer premises were connected by cables to central offices where switching and routing were implemented. Wired telecommunications carriers continue to be a large sector of the telecommunications industry, though increasingly companies in this business use wireless technologies in addition (or in conjunction with) their wired services. While voice used to be the main type of signal transmitted over the wires, current services include the transmission of multiple types of analog and digital signals for communication of graphics, audio, video, and other electronic data. Almost all services include (or plan to include) interfaces to the Internet.

Wireless telecommunications companies, many of which have started as subsidiaries of the wired carriers, make use of radio towers and satellites to communicate with the mobile devices operated by their customers. Indeed, in the last decade mobile telephones have become ubiquitous, and have incorporated additional services beyond voice communications. Handheld device technologies known as the third generation of mobile phones (3G) already provide wide-area wireless voice telephony and broadband wireless data incorporating high-speed internet access and video telephony. The envisioned fourth generation communication system (4G) would provide users with a comprehensive IP solution where voice, data and streamed multimedia will be available on an "anytime, anywhere" basis, and at higher data rates.

Using optic fibers and satellite communication, many companies have developed popular television services that provide customers with hundreds of channels and with the ability to purchase services and participate in interactive games, competitions, and polls. Many enterprises that started as Cable TV or Satellite TV have now integrated the original technology with Internet services, and have blended multiple wired and wireless technologies into their infrastructure to provide customers with new information and entertainment services. These services have transformed the traditional means of data collection and dissemination, such as newspapers and over-the-air radio and television networks.
The dramatic changes in telecommunications over the last 10 years appear to have been just the beginning of a large technological shift in this field. Many areas, such as military communications, have not yet incorporated the benefits of the new technologies in full, and many geographical areas of the world have not yet joined the global networks. At the same time, issues of reliability, security, resilience to attacks, and scalability continue to pose major technical and scientific challenges. While these challenges do not guarantee problem-free employment to all telecommunication engineers, they do point to a strong positive trend and to the potential for many rewarding careers in a strongly expanding market.

Note: The resources on this page provided in part courtesy of the Sloan Career Cornerstone Center.