Telecom is Just a Phrase We're Going Through
The words we use can betray us. “Telecommunications” combines two unrelated words as if they represented a single concept. We now understand that “tele” (transport over a distance) and “communicating” (talking) are distinct concepts.
Because we confuse the two we find ourselves ceding control of our ability to communicate. We accept the limited choices the carriers choose to sell us – the ones that are most profitable to them.
The problem is not just that phone and cable bills are high.
It's about jobs. You can't hire someone to improve your connection to the world -- you just choose among carriers' offerings. You can't create companies that take advantage of abundant connectivity. Instead of creating jobs we watch a moribund telecommunication industry shed jobs.
It's about safety. The traditional services fail if any component fails as we say on 9/11. The Internet model allows us to take advantage of any available path so it works as long as any path is available or can be made available. Even if it isn't sufficient for conversation we can still exchange messages.
It's about safety. Dialing 911 is reserved for emergencies and only if we have a working phone. Not only does the Internet model allow us access to emergency services, we can do preventative medicine.
A century ago the “talking telegraph” was a technical marvel. It seemed as if each method of communicating needed its own industry – we had the press and the postal system, telegraph wires, phone wires and later television wires. The US Constitution guarantee of free speech required a free press to transport the speech.
When radio was introduced it fell into this pattern but with an extra nuance. The method for sharing the medium – spectrum allocation – resulted in a scarce supply of channels and in 1927 the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was created to manage not just the technology of “radio” but who whose speech it should carry. There was concern about the first amendment but once we crossed the line the idea of a Federal Communications Commission seemed natural even though “communications” is a human activity, not a technology.
Digital packet technology gave us the ability to represent all content – text, speech, video – as bits. The 0's and 1's are all identical. It doesn't matter whether we send them over a wire or as holes punched in cardboard as in the early days of computing.
We can send the bits over any transport. Even better, we can reassemble them and make up for any that got lost. The bits themselves have no meaning – meaning is only found outside the network.
This is the basis for the Internet which is not a network at all in the traditional sense.
The Internet is not the wires (or non-wires) but simply a way to use them. The bits can travel over any transport.
What makes it hard for people to understand the Internet is that unlike traditional networks there is no assurance that any particular message will get delivered in a timely fashion or even at all.
In early days of the Internet we found that it was useful for sending email and exchanging files but few were able to use it to carrying on a conversation. The unreliable packets were inexpensive so even modest applications created a demand. Users found value in any packets that became available making it easy to increase the supply of packets.
From time to time people would try to use the Internet for voice conversations but the results tended to be unsatisfactory until it just started to work sufficiently well for VoIP to be an effective alternative to the traditional phone network. But the process didn't stop there – today VoIP calls are often far better than traditional telephony, especially for international calls! Because all bits are the same there is no special treatment for voice bits.
The traditional phone network is entirely built for a single purpose – carrying voice. Because it assumes scarcity it cannot rely on statistics for sharing. The result is to perpetuate scarcity – reserving capacity is very inefficient. A single telephone wire can carry many megabits of data but is reserved for an occasional phone call and even then only a small capacity of the wire is used. The technology of 1876 made this necessary. Today it not at all necessary though it gives the carriers an rationale for charging for the use of the copper path.
This is a very expensive infrastructure and there is no dynamic to reduce the costs. There is incentive to ensure people will continue to pay for telephone calls.
Actually there is a way to reduce the costs – use Voice over IP itself but still charge for the phone call as a service! But this only works if you keep your customers from being able to solve their own problems.
The carriers benefit from maintaining the illusion of scarcity. As with the FRC it gives them an excuse for deciding who can communicate and how. Yet the Internet has shown us there is no such scarcity. The phone wire can now be used 100% of the time and carry thousands of phone calls at a time. Fibers can carry far more.
Cable TV companies are no better off, video bits are not special and video streams are more tolerant of delays than conversational voice. No wonder the carriers are trying to put in structural impediments. One technique is to segregate video from other traffic as if video 1's and 0's were different than other 1's and 0's. They can't risk revealing the abundant capacity already available.
We accept the presumption of scarcity because we have been trained from childhood that the pie is finite and therefore we mustn't take more than our share.
The Internet defies our basic common sense – the more you use it the more there is. This may seem like magic but it pis a simple process of co-evolution. If you're used to turning right and walking around the block to visit your friend and then you find that if you turn left the house is next door you've created new value by simply reinterpreting what already exists. You have created value without using up resources nor taking it from someone else! You have made time available without taking it from someplace else.
If you have millions of people taking advantage of opportunity to discover interpretations then we all benefit from many of these insights. And then we discover new opportunities and the process repeats. As long as we are ready to accept opportunity rather than reject anything that doesn't fit our preconceived expectations then we get the rapid increase in cost/benefit we call Moore's law.
If you are restricted to a choice of predefined solutions you will get the stagnation that characterizes today's Telecom. The little innovation you see, as in today's cellular, comes from the carriers taking advantage of others' innovation and then keeping it under tight control.
We see this in the GSM carriers' “IP Inter-working” plan. They come right out and say that there is now abundant capacity and they want to continue to keep it contained within the “3G” billable services that already confine cellular telephony. The landline carriers' version is called “IMS”.
The governments are complicit in this effort by maintaining what I call the Regulatorium – the fictional world in which everything is a billable service. In that world the Internet is not a powerful idea – it's treated as just another “broadband” television station.
One reason the government is complicit in mainlining the fictional of the Regulatorium is that they realize that if users were able to create their own solutions the carriers wouldn't be able to charge them for the services and thus would fail.
Attempts to separate the transport and the content have been stymied because the carriers' very existence is promised on the high margins of the service model.
You need a different kind of company to maintain infrastructure. The power of capitalism comes from its ability to retire old businesses and create new ones.
We didn't build highways by adding more tracks to railroads. But trying to provide “Internet” as it were just another phone service makes no more sense than running a railroad track to each house.
It doesn't make sense to charge for bits out of context any more than it makes sense to put a tollbooth at each driveway and charges us the same whether we're driving to the corner store or across the country.
Bits, like a segment of road, have no value in isolation. The value comes from being part of a network. They are infrastructure and must be funded as such.
The economy benefits from their availability. This especially true for the bit transports that are very inexpensive and don't have the physical footprint of roads.
In fact we're already paying for multiple bit pipes which exist for no purpose other than channel traffic into billable paths. Cities often have their own infrastructure for each service. Sharing all of this capacity would reduce costs! There is also abundant capacity between our cities and often with cities that is held off the marketplace so as to maintain high prices.
It doesn't make any more sense to have multiple bit pipes than it does to have multiple water pipes and electric wires.
The packets are the same whether contained in a wire or not – we can be connected anywhere anytime. If you don't have coverage in your basement or on your farm you can extend the network thus add value.
The presumption of scarcity that lead Congress to accept the FRC's restrictions on speech and commerce in 1927 were accepted because we didn't understand the dynamics of Moore's law.
We now know better.
Or at least we should but expertise is now based not on knowledge of basic principles but on the ability to interpret runes of the Regulatorium in best tradition of sterile debate.
Those whose billions would be stranded were there a real marketplace have a stake in maintaining the fiction. But we can't afford the cost in jobs, in safety and in our future.
Those who have a stake in governing speech would prefer to forget the Congress' reluctance to grant the FRC its authority.
It's easy to excuse ignorance by dismissing everything in Washington as just politics or just too complicated to understand.
Yet the issue is very simple. Once we understand bits are bits and that we are not dealing with a scarce resource there is no reason to tolerate the transport providers preventing us from communicating.
There is no reason to put up with a dysfunctional and very expensive fictional industry once we recognize that we have a simple infrastructure model and that we can all add capacity at a low cost. The little connectivity we have has given us the web – think of how much more we can achieve if we have the opportunity.
~200 years ago the US was founded as the land of opportunity. Free speech gave new ideas a chance to be heard and the results have been remarkable.
The first part of this essay is intended as a stand-alone piece for a general audience, futile though it may be. Towards this end I had to over simply though I tried to be conceptually consistent with the full explanation. The essay is still evolving and I'll probably do a full rewrite before trying to get it printed as an Op-Ed in a wide circulation newspaper.
I originally focused on the word “Telecommunications” but in doing some background resource I discovered the history of the Federal Radio Commission and how we slid from regulating technology to regulating speech. We tend to think in terms of trends but if look closely we see a series of specific events and turning points. Having a specific event makes it easier to reexamine and question the decisions made.
While the basic idea of decoupling tele from communications is simple and enough itself to give us real marketplaces I'm up against deeply held beliefs and experts who know that the way things are is the only way things can be.
I do need to address their concerns. For others I need to assuage their fears. Ultimately if all I promise is opportunity I can't guarantee that everything we are used to will continue to work but fortunately the dramatic success of the Internet with the Web and Voice over IP means that we are already past major hurdles.
Even better, we already have much of the infrastructure in place and the money budgeted for current infrastructure should cover the costs if spent wisely.
For those whose horizon is limited to lowering cable bills, there is very good news. For the curmudgeons who don't see why they need to pay for roads or schools I can still offer reduced taxes and freedom from others' rules. But they'll still have to grouse about something.