Policy vs Reality
Telecom policy should be simple and null. The hard part is convincing people it really is that simple and why. This essay gives an overview for my more detailed comments on television and telephony
01-Dec-2003Version 2: 2023-03-18 10:09:41

I recently posted two essays about telecom policy: "Don't Recapitulate" and "2007 or 1995 or 1950".

The concepts are amazingly simple. I'm the primary audience since trying to explain the concepts in writing forces me to understand the issues. The Internet is one of the best examples of the triumph of simplicity and demonstrates the importance of simple concepts. To put it very simply -- if the concepts are simple they are accessible.

The importance of the Internet lies in its simplicity. It was expedient to shift the hard problem of dealing with unreliable intermediaries to the users at the edge. This allowed the Internet itself to be very simple and it turned out that once users could create their own solutions, they created more demand. The simplicity of the Internet made it simple to meet the demand. The Internet, important as it is, is just one example of this virtuous cycle -- the concepts are far more important than the net itself but it's simpler to use concrete examples.

I primarily focus on telecom because it is such a good example and making progress yields tangible benefits.

The virtuous cycle in which demand and supply driving each other is exciting but it goes against the idea that supply and demand are at odds and seems too much like perpetual motion. It also goes against the assumption that associates complexity with importance. The concept of "no pain no gain" is not true but it has a very strong moral appeal. Virtue and hard work will be rewarded and sloth is a sin. It is so obvious that it need not be stated. It's also a cultural meme used to inculcate children with society's work ethic. No wonder people feel it is so important to bring the new technologies into line. It's too easy so something must be wrong.

Yet it's the very lack of predetermined results that makes the virtuous cycle work. It works because of legerdemain (slight of hand). We don't really have specific demands -- we take advantage of whatever is available. With the Internet we take junk connectivity and make up for lost packets. At first it's good enough for just email but over time the quantity increases till we can be pretty sure that our packets will get through. This is the fundamental paradox that makes it so hard to have regulatory policy. You can either guarantee modest results or accept uncertainty and gain a lot.

It may seem like a lottery but it is the antithesis. In normal roulette you place your bet on a single number before the wheel stops spinning. In the evolutionary marketplace all numbers are potential winners. You place the bet after the wheel stops because the number itself doesn't determine whether you win or lose. It's up to you to find out how to use the number you have to win and when there are a lot of players it's almost certain that someone will find a way to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the number and we can all benefit. We see this in telecom -- the bits themselves have no meaning. The meaning comes from interpretations made outside the network itself.

I've been programming since the 1960's and am used to simple but powerful ideas and the effect they can have. VisiCalc was the equivalent of only five typed pages! One of the most important lessons I learned in college was that simplicity arises from understanding and is not intrinsic. Multiplying VII times CXI is difficult but 7 times 111 is simple though the represent the same values.

A point to point connection using Vonage or Skype or using the programs I wrote myself are not only just as good as a "real" phone call, they can be better because they don't have all the built in limits of the standard telephone network! As I point out in Don't Recapitulate the response is to find new things to worry about such as 9-1-1 and funding phones on remote farms. They have nothing to do with telephony but the absence of pain makes people very uncomfortable. There must be a catch. It is this feeling that there must be something that gives the Regulatorium its power. There isn't and once you understand that you will not be able to argue arcane points of telecom regulation without feeling as if you were acting out a role in a farce.

As bad as the situation is for telephony, television is far worse because it has a very strong command and control mentality. The word itself adds to the confusion since today a the TV (to distinguish the device form the industry) is nothing more than a display with vestigial tuner and an industry that chooses what you can watch and the industry that produces the content. Today both the telephony and television are shifting to using the very same Internet that you can use at home (though they purposely built artificial barriers around their portion). The monitor you use for your computer is far better than your television screen and can be used to view TV.

The video signal itself comes from a set top box or your computer. While there is still over-the-air broadcast the cable systems are shifting to giving everyone their own stream and, more important, they are giving you a way to send your own stream back. The cable modem and the DSL lines are increasing in capacity. They can carry TV (including HDTV) right now. At current speeds it may take a while but probably less time than it takes to go out and rent a DVD. Very soon they will carry videos streams quickly enough for you to be able to watch anything you want over a stream you control.

Today a VoIP provider can do just as well as a telephone company in providing voice services but without the burden of maintaining the wires. Very soon this will be true for CableTV also. As I point out in Have Connectivity, the carriers will soon need to shift to a new business model which doesn't include controlling the transport.

In the midst of all this exciting change and new opportunity Congress is acting as if it is still 1950. They assume that you will have the same kind of TV you had in the 1950's with the over-the-air tuner as your only source of content. It's not just a bad idea; it's the law (Digital Signals Rule for New TVs Upheld). It will also be against the law to watch movies the way you want because the "Broadcast Flag" is a "it's not really yours" flag. You may find yourself in court if you watch a movie the wrong way such as using a few seconds to enhance a home movie you share with a few friends. Of course you can still get it but you will be breaking the law and thus putting yourself totally at the mercy of the MPAA. This is a shift away from the fundamental principle of US law that you are allowed to do what is not prohibited. You will now be doing what is prohibited and hoping for an exemption.

It's all simple but goes against common sense. That said I don't really expect to convince you by just stating what I see as obvious. If you are at least curious you should read "Don't Recapitulate" and "2007 or 1995 or 1950" and my other attempts to give a more complete explanation.

The policy issues themselves are important but the marketplace is moving inexorably toward providing more Internet connectivity. But regulatory policy can slow the process and it can create new classes of criminals -- those who embrace the new opportunities. This is why it is important to understand the issues.

I benefit from explaining the concepts to others because the sooner we get past the current myths the sooner I can take advantage of the opportunities. In trying to explain the concepts I understand the issues better. I still program and build things and that is far more important than regulatory arcania. The regulatory system is simply unable to cope with the current pace of change -- it is simply trying to catch up in its inept way.

The fact that I can write programs that do what the telephony and television industries do is important in its own right. Sure, I can't do what a studio with a thousand people can do but I can produce results that can compete. That's a harbinger of a fundamental shift in society �