Telecom is Just a Phrase We're Going Through -- FAQs
31-Mar-2006Version 2: 2023-03-27 08:43:16

This is a companion document to Telecom is Just a Phrase We're Going Through. It is an attempt to answer questions people have about the concepts. I plan to refine this section over time. It's a work in progress and needs more work. I'm emphasizing making ideas available over good writing or even editing. I will try to correct typos but this section is to be viewed as a working document rather than a well-edited tome.


  • 2006.04.01 (not April fools)
    • Added a comment about answers before questions.
    • Explained why QoS is the proxy for carrier control and is a bogus issue.

Answers and Questions

This is section is not just about answering questions, it's about presenting answers before the questions because we can't ask about possibilities we haven't thought about. That's why we accept the status quo -- we don't know what we should be demanding.

How do we get there from here

I don't want to try too hard to answer this. The simplest answer is to follow the example of the S&L bailout and just buy it all. Level 3 owns a significant part of the backbone and the market cap is only $4,222billion (AKA $4.2×109). Verizon is currently $100billion which is a bit price. Still, the S&L bailout was about a trillion dollars. This should be considerably less. Once people accept the infrastructure model, the alternative is to watch the investments lose all value as antitrust laws are enforced.

The alternative is for the companies to restructure themselves and split at the component companies. It might yield more for the shareholders or maybe not.

What is important is that we set the process in motion and force the issue. Once the model is accepted there is no going back to the bad old days of the Regulatorium.

Connectivity From the Edge? Where is my CableTV?

So how does this connectivity thing work? I wrote about this in

The basic idea is very simple. Instead of thinking of the Internet as something you access just like a telephone call, you should think about local infrastructure. You can provide a lot of local capacity so you can communicate with your neighbors and local services.

The analogy with roads is useful – a city will run a road to the curb not your driveway. In many cities you decide what kind of water connection you want. You decide how to connect your house. You can decide how to connect to the rest of the city.

For example, you can use short range 60Ghz radios (more like light sources) to exchange gigabits of data. So what if you can't get the same capacity to your cousin in Alaska. This is what opportunity is about. Tim Berners-Lee took advantage of this high speed LAN to create the Web even though most of us were still limited to dial up connections.

But what happens when you want to watch TV – what if your neighbor is abusing the network and using too much capacity or if everyone in the city wants to watch a different video stream from far away.

To put it another way, will we still have the equivalent of today's Cable TV? Of course!

If I'm wrong then we can still keep the Cable TV distribution plant but it's hard to see a need for spending the money on a shared transport and not wasting it by broadcasting everything everywhere. Today's Video on Demand (VoD) demonstrates that we already have the capacity for narrowcasting. But that doesn't mean your neighbors 10 HDTV streams won't impact you. But if that's still only a small part of the aggregate capacity then you should be fine. If everyone does it then there would be a shared need for more capacity.

There can still be contention at the connection with the rest of the Internet. Unlikely since there is so much potential capacity but at worst you may benefit from caching popular content locally or among peers.

At worst you'll get better performance from watching the popular content but unlike today's cable networks you won't be limited to that.

To put it another way, if the CableCos can do better than the shared infrastructure then let them but I don't expect them to be able to. We've already got enough capacity for today's Cable TV – more than enough.

That Darn Internet

Yeah, the current Internet is just a prototype.

I normally talk about connectivity as the general concept but I compromised and used the familiar term since people don't know what the Internet is anyway. I apologize for the simplification. No I don't.

In order to really take advantage of abundance and mobility we need a new generation of protocols. Skype and other P2P efforts are a step in the right direction. The current Internet is not a chokepoint; it is just a set of protocols. We can and will create new ones that can take advantage of abundance.


Isn't it strange that we have the least connectivity when we are not longer limited by wires? The compromise of 1927 was based on what I call “Single Frequency Single Hop Shouting”. Packet connectivity is a far better dynamic.

While 802.11 has many good attributes we can do far better. For now using off-the shelf 802.11 networking is a good start. It isn't necessarily a replacement for wired connectivity but it does allow us to discover what it means to really be connected.

You may not use your laptop as you walk around but the successor to the cellular phone will be able to act as your personal computing agent. You'll wonder how you ever drove without knowing the current traffic conditions and without knowing where to find a parking spot waiting for you (even if you have to bid on it and pay the previous “owner”).

All those features of cellular phones are really lame versions of real Internet protocols. Looking at the protocol documents is an eerie experience – they are taken from real Internet protocols and warped.

The big change will be moving the control of relationships out of the network. You may lose connectivity but there wouldn't be the concept of a drop out – you'd just resume the conversation once you get connectivity reestablished. Given that anyone can extend the network you'll be able to extend connectivity rather than depending upon the cellular carrier to deign to do so.

When I look at the Verizon ads with scores of people following you around I get nervous. Why can't I do it myself rather than paying for all the hordes of people they show following you around. It's as if you were cooking dinner at home but still had to tip the waiters.

For that matter I have a strong allergic reaction to most cellular ads telling us why we should be thankful that the carriers are going do something for me that I am not allowed to do for myself and they will charge me for it.

Cracks in the façade?

The Regulatorium has long been problematic but the problems have accelerated as digital technologies have worked their magic. ATT long ago recognized that they were not in a viable business but they thought that long haul corporate business was the future.

Turns out they were wrong. The local Bells were able to rely on the naïveté of the retail user and local politicians to maintain control. Even the Bells realized that voice revenue was going away so they wanted to become TV companies. That's why they created DSL but they couldn't get the signal compressed enough for the early version of DSL. They decanted the technology and repackaged it as Internet access though the speed was still what it had been ten years before and is only catching up now.

The irony is that they are trying again with FiOS and faster DSL but we now compress video signals sufficiently thanks to personal computers. But that means their users can also. Innovation undermines long term capital intensive all-or-nothing bets.

Their other bet is cellular – the 3G protocols lock out unwanted competition from consumers. Replacing the 3G towers with simple packet routers would cost far less and do more.

802.11 might not be up to the task but that may only slow the process. It won't delay the inevitable transition.

The high priced 3G-based Internet connections (EVDO, HSDPA) can't scale to meet real demand but they can help us experiment with real connectivity and thus increase the demand for 802.11 and future protocols.

There is still money in landline telephony as the carriers keep their customers hostage within the PSTN but that too is doomed. Lower prices from VoIP are a start but today's VoIP providers make their money by taking a cut of the payment for bridging calls.

The big revenue from corporate customers is indeed going away and the PSTN is being ported to an IP infrastructure. It won't take much for the paths between the PSTN and the rest of the Internet to open up.

Why is Symmetry Important

There are multiple aspects we can look at. One is speed. If we confuse the Internet with television it seems obvious that we want lots of video coming to us but that's like assuming that a telephone is just like radio and we want to listen to broadcasts instead of talking to each other and that broadcasting is special and expensive. The Internet lets us all participate and we can't prejudge who are the broadcasters and who is the audience. If you have a family event you might want to broadcasts it to relatives around the world. If we have a Golf Channel on cable why not T-Ball channel. Why not let a professor give a free public lecture to all those around the world who want to watch and ask questions?

There's another kind of symmetry -- protocol symmetry. If two people are out of range of a cellular tower their phones are useless. That's really stupid -- why aren't the protocols symmetric so they can still communicate. The early analog cellular phones depending on the accidental properties of frequency modulation (FM) but today's digital phones can and should be able to use the same protocols to speak directly or via the towers. The purpose of the tower is the house the billing trolls. If the phones were able to communicate directly you would evade their billing engine. Of course they can build the billing engine into each phone but that would be too blatant. Better to make it seem as if the towers were necessary. If phones were able to communicate directly it would be hard to explain why a Verizon phone couldn't speak to a fATT (Cingular) phone.

QoS -- Quality of Service whatever that is

The QoS is a big issue and I and others have written about this. The challenge is to put it to issue to rest in a few sentences.The reality is that VoIP does NOT depend on QoS in the backbone -- it can't because you can't impose such an arbitrary policy across a dynamic path. The only place it is used is on very restricted local chokepoints where the users can decide if their voice traffic is most important than everything else.

So some quick points about QoS to see if I can get past it efficiently (revisiting what I said in the past)

  • Quality? What is Quality? Why did people ever use analog cellular if pin-drop-clarity (PDC) is so damn important? Who decided better mute than mobile? People put up with delayed voice due to compression or satellite links when the alternative is to pay a lot more or not talk at all. Quality is in the ear of the beholder – or the policy of the holder of the pipe.
  • QoS is the very kind of policy that created the mess we’re in – the FRC had to decide who had priority to get a channel. That’s coarse grain QoS and represented total control.
  • In the middle of the network you can’t have a total ordering for priorities and can’t composite such a policy Edge-to-Edge. Apparently ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Method) has had these problems inter-carrier.
  • Even at the edge why do you build-in the assumption that voice is the most important traffic? Maybe performing heart surgery over the net does – if you believe in QoS you may be foolish enough to try it. Even with QoS you can't guarantee that ever packet will get through.
  • Fat pipes have trumped QoS every time. If you are going to put n units of effort into implementing QoS, better put it into getting more capacity and getting value rather than doling out scarcity
  • If you have a very fat pipe then voice will get through anyway The way to defeat the power of statistical sharing is to put in complex and perverse and magical and arbitrary QoS algorithms. If you create winners you also create losers and if you do with an arbitrary policy we're back into the Regulatorium's moral imperative.
  • If you need QoS you don’t have enough capacity anyway so stop talking. If you believe QoS is necessary than stay with the PSTN -- or at least your illusion of the PSTN since it too is going with IP-based connections.
  • QoS is an upper bound – the PSTN guarantees 56kbps (or 64kbps in Europe) and that is the best you are allowed. There is nothing to prevent links from degrading the signal but you can’t do better. QoS is designed to see how little quality they can get away with not how much. That’s why Skype can sound much better than the PSTN can possible sound.

All the carriers say that all they want to do is give us the best quality of service in the world. It’s those net neutrality people who won’t let them. That’s why they can’t offer those wonderful services. If they don’t have control over the complete path they can’t guarantee quality so they are opposing muni-connectivity because they are the real advocates for the customers. Not those Internet people who are obstructionists who don’t want anyone telling them whose bits are most important. Obviously I'm being sarcastic -- what they are really saying is that if there's a fair market in which they don't get to set all the rules they can't compete - they aren't up to the task. They can only survive if they get special privileges to cover their incompetence.

In a sense this is all about QoS -- if you presume the need for net neutrality you can't cede control to the users. It's better to say it's about quality than admitting it's about restricting users to billable services.

But …

I don't want to claim I have all the answers. It's not about any particular applications but a process. Today's telecommunications industry is a fake and will collapse.

The market has a way of coming to terms with opportunity.

When ma-bell was broken up many saw the end of what they thought was the greatest phone network possible. Today it's far simpler and less expensive.

But we still fear the future …

The Federal Radio Commission. “Although channels were scarce, radio as a form of expression was protected by the First Amendment and the Radio Act of 1927” Many determinations regarding broadcasting regulations were made prior to 1934 by the Federal Radio commission, and most provisions of the Radio Act of 1927 were subsumed into Title III of the 1934 Communications Act. Sections 303-307 define many of the powers given to the commission with respect to broadcasting.