Tele/Communications
In the last column I asked what a Phone Company does and why we need one. In this column I continue the theme by questioning the assumptions implicit in the word “telecommunications”.01-May-2006
Updated: 09-Oct-2006

This is a version of my May 2006 column in Von Magazine . The magazine is now posting images of the pages instead of the actual text so I’m posting the original version here. You can view the printed version here .

In the last column I asked what a Phone Company does and why we need one. In this column I continue the theme by questioning the assumptions implicit in the word “telecommunications”.

The defining premise of the telecommunications industry is that the message (communications) and the transport (tele) are one. They pay for expensive infrastructure by selling for high value services. The Internet puts a lie to the fundamental economical principles that define telecommunications because the services are created at the edge of the network and thus the revenues no longer accrue to the carrier.

The “communications” has escaped from telecommunications.

No wonder the carriers are desperate for the two-tiered internet – they want to maintain the fiction that only they can provide at least some of the services. The GSM consortium even publishes slide shows (http://www.frankston.com/?name=AchievingScarcity) showing how they will avoid the danger of abundance by requiring that people only be allowed to buy billable services from them. This is also the idea behind IMS, or what I’ve been calling the billable Internet.

Thanks to Claude Shannon’s work at Bell Labs and other research we know that the whole idea of handing over our ability to communicate to gatekeepers whose only goal is the creation of billable events is insane at best. It is anti-capitalism yet there seems to be a lack of political will to challenge the system. Investors who should recognize the obvious signs of a bad investment seem to be willing to pour new money into a dead industry rather than take advantage of the opportunities afforded by providing and using the abundant connectivity held hostage by the carriers.

How did we get here? It’s not as if communications services are something new. Thousands of years ago we had runners carrying messages, and then scribes transcribing messages, post services for carrying missives and fan entire publishing industry that transports text on pages made from wood pulp.

The concept of telecommunications is equivalent to taking the term pulp-fiction too seriously and classifying plywood as a book with its pages glued together. But that’s they way we write our telecommunications regulations. The very language of the Regulatorium assumes that services are fundamental so we can’t talk about fungible connectivity.

Analog systems are fragile and use special wires for each kind of signal because the losses have to be matched to preserve the particular aspects of each message. Thus we have special wires for voice, video and other signals. This plethora of special wires continues to plague modern consumer electronics. It is makes it seem as if vertical integration is not just valid but necessary.

It is this kind of na?e misunderstanding that often drives policy – especially if it reinforces the status quo. It makes consumer sympathetic to the plight of their phone companies. It gives the executives a cover story for denying the results of their own research and for that they must be held accountable.

Digital technology allows us to treat the transport as simple infrastructure totally apart from the contents of the message.

The carriers are heavily lobbying to prevent the creation of true information highway – one that simply transports messages without capturing them. Even as they admit that their businesses are not viable they insist on the ability to deny transport to content that competes with them. And they continue to invest in their failing model. For this too they must be held accountable.

I can understand the na?e assumption that each kind of message requires its own transport. Those who have responsibility for investing billions and dollars and those responsible for policies that affect a vital infrastructure have a responsibility to have a deeper understanding.

The problems are fundamental and structural. Efforts like “network neutrality” are futile attempts to remedy the structural problem. The “net heads” have a responsibility to distinguish between the services provided by ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and the network itself. For that matter, we don’t access the Internet; we participate by using common protocols over any viable transport.

The closed model of telecommunications must give way to open transport as basic infrastructure. The marketplace is already shifting the value out of telecommunications. Today’s edge protocols such as P2P and providers like Google and Skype are already living at the edge.

We must demand accountability from those try to maintain their privilege by claiming there is no transport and that only they can provide services. The billions of dollars they stand to lose pales compared with the value they deny us.