VON Visions: Imagine No FCC
Imagine a world without the FCC and without a telecommunications industry. How would we communicate? The FCC is supposed to assure we can communicate but instead has become agency that has assured scarcity rather than abundance.30-Jan-2008

Copy of the original column from Von Magazine

Imagine a world without the FCC and without a telecommunications industry. How would we communicate? Who’s going to supply the dial tone we need in order to make a phone call?

If you understand what a dial tone is, you realize that’s a very strange question. A dial tone means that a service provider has reserved facilities so you can make a phone call. Your phone goes off-hook, and you are charged for the duration of your call.

With VoIP the phone call doesn’t even exist as something in the network. There is nothing to be charged for; you just send packets whenever you want. No one can really guarantee that the packets will get through. What the carriers tell you with the “circuits busy” signal is that you can’t get through, even if you only want to send a short message. The Internet has enough capacity to assure you can get though, and if for some reason you can’t, you can still send a message (most of the time you can get much higher quality than the PSTN and even add video).

You can argue that without the telecom companies laying all that fiber, we wouldn’t have this vast capacity. But that gets history backwards. Interconnecting the local phone systems was a very difficult problem in the early days of telephony. It was so difficult that Congress was convinced to give AT&T special privileges– the “natural monopoly”–so that it could impose its control over the entire network in order to get the pieces to work together. Even then it required exacting engineering standards to achieve sufficient quality for people to talk over long distances.

The big breakthrough was the shift to digital technologies–the very same technologies we now use for Internet connectivity. Actually there’s a crucial difference between the phone network and the Internet. The phone network presumed that there was one company that operated the entire network and thus took advantage of its control to make efficient use of the scarce and expensive facilities.

With the Internet, as per the endto- end constraint, we can’t depend on controlling the network. Instead we’ve learned how to create our own solutions using whatever is available. This means we can take advantage of the infrastructure without being dependent upon a network provider’s high-priced facilities.

If we understood digital technologies in the early days of telephony, we wouldn’t have had the same interconnect problem. It took years to get Short Message Service (SMS) to interconnect across operators. We’ve had a similar problem with instant messaging (IM); it took years to get the systems to interconnect. The problem with SMS was getting it to work at all. The problem for the IM companies was preventing interconnect because it was so easy for the users to do themselves! Each level of dependence is a major impediment to innovation.

It’s very easy to exchange packets– especially if you don’t need to be perfect and they are all the same. You don’t need to make special arrangements for each service. Anyone can create solutions and anyone can contribute capacity. Each community can add local capacity, and then a country or state can add spanning capacity as it does for roads.

The idea of a natural monopoly wouldn’t have arisen because there wouldn’t have been a problem to be solved. Of course we didn’t have digital back then, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept the legacy of the natural monopoly. We can take advantage of what we’ve learned since.

The same reasoning applies to wireless connectivity. We needn’t allocate frequencies–the legacy of the tuning fork. Now that we know that wireless bits are not special, all we need is to reach a nearby access point so we don’t need to reserve a large dead zone around a transmitter. As we see with 802.11, we can use spread spectrum techniques to avoid collisions even locally without a central authority.

Finding a path between your phone and someone anywhere else in the world isn’t too difficult if you have abundant capacity; you just hop on a highway that gets you close to the destination such as I-90 in the United States or M-4 in the United Kingdom. It’s very different from the analog world in which you have to worry about every detail along the way.

Why do we continue to have policies based on analog scarcity when we can realize the benefits of digital abundance? Why do we let the FCC limit our ability to communicate?