Two Sides but Different Coins
I applaud the call for civility in the debate over Internet policy issues vs telecom interests but there aren't two sides of a debate -- we have two different dynamics. The Internet is about creating solutions independent of what's in the middle. Telecom is all about what's in the middle. We need to come to terms with this fundamental difference if we are to have a productive discussion.
26-May-2008Version 2: 2022-12-05 16:18:03

I'm writing this in response to "A call for less heated rhetoric".

I agree that there is too much emotional baggage here but it is the concept of “sides” itself that may be the bigger impediment to effective discussion.

People are talking past each other because telecom and the Internet are not two sides of the same coin – they are essentially unrelated concepts. This is not obvious because we use the telecom paths to exchange packets and we can implement telecom services over IP and thus the two seem interchangeable.

The Internet is about what we do without dealing with the stuff in the middle including negotiating for transport. Telecom is all about the what's in the middle.

No wonder people become angry and frustrated when they want something but have difficulty articulating it. We then compound the problem by assuming that social problems caused by new opportunities are “Internet” problems and should be solved by “The Internet”. Is a URL just speech or is it an action? The lines are no longer as clear as the legal system might like.

We frame the debate around examples like exchanging videos and ignore stories like the one the May 25th New York Times about medical monitoring. Ironically, such monitoring has become increasingly easy as connectivity becomes more readily available thanks to the Internet.. I’m purposely using the term “connectivity” here to avoid confusion because to many people the Internet is the Web. And I also refer to “The Internet” because that’s the word people recognize.

The problem is that too much money is at stake and so is our health and safety. The Internet as a concept is very disruptive. Yet we must come to terms with it in far less than a generation. Change of paradigm may be a cliché but you don’t just change half a paradigm. The basic concepts that bits are bits and that we create meaning and solutions ourselves without having to depend on a service provider is a forcing issue. Twenty years ago this may have all been theory but today we know we can implement the entire telecom industry on top of “The Internet” (for want of a better term).

What is less obvious is that we don’t need a centrally administered network as embodied into today’s IP address – but that’s still a contentious issue. We should be able to talk about it as a technical issue but it’s difficult to separate it from the policy debate. It’s a twin to the question of whether we need the (valuable) guarantees we associate with telecom in order to communicate.

Even though all the issues are intertwined we need to try to identify aspects that give us some understanding:

One is the implications of the end-to-end solutions:

First, we have to be explicit in recognizing that end-to-end is not the same as womb-to-tomb – just the opposite. Here too I have the dilemma of trying to coin a new term or use what we have. It is P2P but “P2P” itself has too much baggage. Very simply you can create solutions without dealing with anything other than the end points in a relationship. Thus ten years ago the Kindergarten cam was a big deal. Fast forward to today people are doing their own medical monitoring of aging parents and others.

The Internet is common infrastructure. If a city wants to implement smart traffic lights it doesn’t need any new infrastructure but can use the common connectivity including open access points. Thus a major expensive effort is reduced to a matter of implementing some protocols in software. Of course this also means the city must embrace and understand the Internet as infrastructure. Why are there endless arguments over piracy and using up the Internet when there could be conversation taking a positive approach by finding value in available connectivity? Why frame the argument in terms of the cost of Internet rather than cost savings?

This is not just about telecom emulation – it means that billions of people have an opportunity to create their own solutions at little cost and to share them with others.

Of course this can be done within today’s telecom as Amazon did by contracting with Sprint for delivery to the Kindle but that’s hardly the same thing. Dewayne Hendricks is in Tonga at the moment – no Kindling there. It's not just that it should not be necessary to bargain with a carrier just to monitor aging parents – the carrier might not be available nor find it profitable.

The reason I placed this issue before the infrastructure issue is that what is missing from the public debate is a sense of why all this matters and why it’s about more than a few more TV channels and why this concept is not compatible with depending upon a service provider.

Another is the implication of compositing from the edge.

If we can indeed composite connectivity using any available means (as we do with roads) then what does that mean for the underpinnings of telecom as an industry? In the US what does it mean in terms of the US Constitution and basic rights? When I try to raise the issue I’m told that that discussion is off the table because the current model is a given.

If you need a reason to get very angry then being told you must buy at the company store is a valid reason. How do you have a sensible discussion when the biggest issue is off the table?

If we can do our own networking using essentially fixed cost infrastructure (as with home networking) then it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t. And if we indeed do so then the funding model for today’s telecom comes apart. No wonder the carriers fear the topic.

Enlightened self-interest.

Money is a useful measure of value but it can't buy what doesn't exist. Those of us who have grown up with computers are accustomed to creating solutions far ahead of what people may presently understand. More to the point: when we share it with others they get excited and want a lot more of it. And our experience has been that it has had a very positive effect on the word. The less we are able to move ahead of what everyone already wants then the poorer we will be.

But that’s not a universally accepted view – focusing on near term value creation, AKA making money, is an appropriate focus for most people – that’s how marketplaces work and it would be presumptuous to assume that everyone should all be working for the greater good, especially when there is no consensus and there are sharp disagreements.

Even something as plain as the ability to communicate without being fettered raises fears – the US First Amendment is still highly contentious.

Yet, ultimately, I do think there is a consensus that we do want more of the good we get from the Internet even if we don’t fully understand it.

To the extent that there are sides we have to make a decision of whether we want to indeed get more of that Internet and deal with the consequences or if we want to proceed slowly and cautiously. That’s a false choice – option B isn’t really on the table. What’s on the table is the notion that we can get the benefits of disruptive change without the disruption. Sorry – no can do.

Instead of viewing the issue in terms of two sides we need to work together to come to terms with the new landscape. Rather than keeping telecom companies alive we have a responsibility to compensate them and assist in the transition. What we cannot afford to do is sacrifice our common interest to the sport of watching two sides battle it out.