Telecommunications Engineering Is Now a Distinct Education Discipline

The IEEE Communications Society led the effort to get the course recognized

21 November 2014

After several years of work by IEEE and the IEEE Communications Society (ComSoc), “telecommunications engineering” has been recognized as a formal engineering course of study in the United States. This recognition came earlier this month from ABET, the accrediting body for academic programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology.

Until this change, very few bachelor-level telecom engineering programs existed, and those that did had been accredited according to electrical engineering criteria. But now it will be possible for those and new programs to be designed and accredited based on criteria provisions of their own. The new changes in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Criteria—now the Electrical, Computer, Communications, and Telecommunications Engineering Criteria—are the first and largest changes of its kind in these criteria in 35 years since computer engineering was introduced.

IEEE is one of 34 member societies that make up ABET, which accredits more than 3,360 academic programs at 684 institutions in 24 countries. Some of these countries recognize telecommunications engineering as a distinct bachelor-level education discipline, so the new criteria will also benefit them by enabling ABET to better evaluate those programs as well as promote new ones, according to IEEE Senior Member Tarek S. El-Bawab, who spearheaded the accreditation effort for IEEE. El-Bawab is a member of the ComSoc Board of Governors, and chair of the society’s Telecommunications Engineering Education (TEE) Workgroup, which reports to the Education and Training Board of the IEEE Communications Society.

 “Telecommunications engineering has witnessed tremendous advances in recent years, but the concepts behind modern telecom have been largely missing from, and have no room in, traditional EE university curricula in the United States,” says El-Bawab. “Unlike EE programs with an emphasis on communications, telecommunications engineering programs will have core courses in network science and engineering to go along with the study of communication theory, signal processing, and electromagnetics.”

The advances in telecommunications engineering are primarily due to progress in network science and engineering and developments in related areas and applications. As a result, telecommunications engineering today is a multidisciplinary field that blends ingredients from electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, information technology, and others.  The telecom field now serves broader industries where the telephony, cellular, computer/data, cable, and entertainment industries have converged. It affects society in many aspects, including health, business, defense, security, space, banking, and social life.

The absence of accreditation criteria has been one reason why some universities are not offering courses in this growing area. This has left the telecom industry to shoulder the cost of training newly minted but academically unprepared university graduates, a price many are unable to continue to pay.

EDUCATION GAP

Until its divestiture into independent companies by the U.S. government in 1984, the Bell Telephone Co., and its successor, the Bell system, was almost the sole provider of telecommunications services in the United States and Canada. In this role it had become the de facto educator in its field. The Bell system’s technical education centers offered semester-based undergrad-level courses, and its R&D arm—Bell Labs—was in effect the telecom engineering graduate school in the United States, notes El-Bawab.

Under this structure, there was little need for university-based telecommunications education. Even after the Bell system’s demise, graduates of its education and training system kept the momentum going. The telecom industry was able to largely rely on these Bell-trained engineers until the early 2000s when, with the economic downturn, many were laid off or retired.

“Today, the breadth and technical scope of modern telecommunications make it difficult for the industry to educate its new engineers or to afford the kind of investment in education that the Bell system used to bear,” says El-Bawab.

Some of these companies had long disbanded their in-house training programs and had come to depend on outside training. Meanwhile, universities can’t fill the knowledge gap because few programs exist and some of these programs are poorly designed, as El-Bawab discovered. Now it will be possible for the industry to look to universities to fill many of the existing education and research gaps, he says.

A MAN ON A MISSION

After having spent nearly 23 years of his professional career in the telecommunications industry, both in the United States and internationally, at organizations like Alcatel-Lucent USA (Plano, Texas), Dar Al-Handasah Consultants (in the Middle East), and Cairo Metro Projects, El-Bawab switched to academia in 2005, following the telecom meltdown and the post-bubble era. He joined one of the very few U.S. universities with a telecommunications engineering program, only to discover that its program did not require coverage of basic and key principles of the field and overlooked all its current advances. All his calls and attempts to fix the program went unheeded and were dismissed by the school’s administration, according to El-Bawab. Today, as the TEE movement concludes successfully, the university program that rejected his advice has been eliminated.

That experience had spurred him on to campaign for change, leading him to write “Is It Time for Specialized Telecommunications Engineering Education in the United States?” The article was published in the January 2010 issue of the Global Communications Newsletter, a monthly supplement to the IEEE Communications Society’s IEEE Communications Magazine. It stimulated considerable interest in IEEE ComSoc and the telecom community. He was encouraged by the society’s Education Board director to form the TEE task force later that year.

“I took it upon myself to get members for the task force from some of the best U.S. engineering schools as well as top leaders of the U.S. telecommunications industry,” he says. These include representatives from AT&T, Huawei, L3 Communications, Alcatel-Lucent, MIT, Stanford, Colorado State University, and others. The group wrote the position paper “Toward Specialized Undergraduate Telecommunications Engineering Education in the U.S.,” published in the September 2012 issue of IEEE Communications Magazine. That article prompted discussions with the IEEE Educational Activities Board, IEEE’s liaison to ABET, and later between the board and ABET.

The IEEE Committee on Engineering Accreditation Activities (CEAA) proposed changes to the electrical and computer engineering accreditation criteria to include specialized provisions for communication engineering. After ABET’s approval in 2012, CEAA formed a team to draft a proposal for the changes. El-Bawab was invited to join this team, and two others from the TEE work group also volunteered upon his request. After a period of public comment, the proposal was finally approved by ABET this month and will be the basis for ABET’s accreditation visits by the 2015 fall semester.

The IEEE Communications Society is now looking into expanding the TEE movement to gain global consensus about the status of telecommunications engineering as an independent engineering education discipline. El-Bawab says ABET’s decision will be a catalyst and a source of international momentum. He admits that it is not possible to develop global accreditation criteria because different countries have different education systems and philosophies. However, he says, IEEE and ComSoc will continue to increase awareness of why TE education is so important.

“I have fulfilled my mission of getting it recognized by ABET,” he says. “I’m so satisfied and happy that this six-year campaign is now finally coming to such a fruitful conclusion.”

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