Looking Behind the Curtain
The telecom industry appears to be very large and imposing but in reality it's all very simple.01-Mar-2007

Why does a broadband provider need to take over my home network?

The classic line from The Wizard of Oz is “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”. It’s supposed to be funny because unlike the real world, the image he’s projecting is just an illusion. I take it as a reminder of how easily we confuse façades with reality.

I can’t take the telecom façade seriously because I’ve spent too much time behind it building things myself. I know that the network outside my house is no different from the network inside. It’s made of the same stuff – CFR (Copper, Fiber and Radios) with some software added to make it all work.

As a kid I knew that I could just connect a phone to the red/green wires and get a dial tone. That’s all it took to install a phone. In the days of rotary phones I could just toggle the switch hook instead of using the dial. At the same time we were running wires to connect our computers and then adding software to exchange messages. No big deal. As a computer guy I didn’t have to worry about the cost of using those computers even as others paid thousands or even millions of dollars.

In my last column I noted that broadband and the Internet are very different. What they have in common is that they are both built using CFR. The problem is that the CFR is currently owned by service providers for their own purposes.

The CFR is like the man behind the curtain – something far simpler than broadband.

If we looked behind the curtain we’d realize that the service providers, those broadband providers, aren’t doing anything special. We would then start asking why they own the CFR in our communities. In fact, they don’t even do a very good job at it.

This became even more obvious recently when I decided to try out Verizon’s FiOS TV. It’s called IPTV but they don’t make that available to me so it doesn’t matter except that I have to use their network router for my home network. They seem to think that they can tell me how to run my home network! I’m the professional and they are the newbies here. The experience was educational – I learned that they use MoCA which is Multimedia over CoAX. Looking at www.mocalliance.org I saw that they are proud to take advantage of “the established consumer mentality of $/Mbps for broadband”! I naively assumed they just used it as a network medium but they go beyond that in designing it for a particular purpose. Why do they make it so difficult for themselves – it’s far easier to run Ethernet or use 802.11 than thick RG-6 cable. This is in addition to my existing Comcast RG-6. They also take over my home network.

One of the benefits of writing this column is that I’m Press and at CES that means I get a backpack so I can carry back tons of dead trees crushed up and converted into marketing material. Of course all I want are URLs but appreciate the detachable laptop bag. The sad part is that the backpack was a highlight of my CES visit.

But I did get some peeks behind the curtain – Visteon was showing a prototype car that had a place to mount my own GPS. I don’t have a dedicated navigator – for me it’s just another application on my HP-HW6945. It also comes with a built-in telephony application. Some people call it a telephone but to me that’s just an application.

Of course most people want to just buy a phone and use it. And they want to buy services and devices. I do too. Today I have only a limited choice of services, each at $s/Mbps. We’ll only have a real choice if everyone has access to the CFR and the opportunity to create and share solutions.

Today’s communications policy is defined in terms of a gold lamé curtain of services. Behind this façade is abundant and inexpensive CFR. As a matter of public policy we must recognize the inherent conflict of interest in letting privileged service providers own the CFR.

IT departments are often styled as service providers in their own right. They buy VoIP as a cheaper version of traditional telephony. The real value comes when we realize the full capabilities of the CFR. Voice bits are no longer special.

If we’re no longer locked into $s/Mbps we are free to discover what is possible.