Don't Recapitulate!
The FCC's plan to set rules for VoIP is a reminder of the tragic disconnect between the Regulatorium and the real world and the price we pay for accepting a mythological view of telecommunications.
13-Nov-2003Version 2: 2022-12-05 16:18:03

"Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" I remember the phrase form high school biology -- it's Latin for the idea that we each fetus passes through each evolutionary stage. It's nonsense but we see the same thinking as the Regulatorium forces us to revisit the past misconceptions of telecommunications whenever we try to do anything new.

It's normal and even necessary to confuse the means for achieving a goal with the goal. Once you've decided on a course of action then you need to focus on the tasks at hand. It is hard to distinguish between those who are making the task difficult and those who offer a far better alternative. Neither fully appreciates the difficulty of the task at hand and the focus needed to overcome all of the hurdles.

When we confuse the ends we seek and the means to achieve them we become captive of our myths. Somehow we've gotten the idea that Voice over IP is very dangerous because we won't be able to dial 9-1-1 and thus we'll all die. By confusing the services with the legacy telecommunications we are denying ourselves far more effective ways to achieve the goals of safety and inclusion.

When they must specify the means of achieving the goals in detail we deny ourselves the ability to do far more than we ask for. Without a marketplace we cannot risk trusting others. It's easy to be cynical about the need to reign in greed but that's what a marketplace does. It's only when shielded from the scrutiny of others that unenlightened greed can fester and even become necessary when gaming the regulations is far more important than delivering better products and services.

Obviously the incumbent carriers see Voice over IP as threatening their ability to charge us high (or even any!) prices for something called a telephone call. It's as if the typewriter and carbon-paper companies united in an attempt to prevent us from using PCs by telling us that they are dangerous and need tight regulation. (Carbon-paper? Just what it sounds like -- a sheet of black sooty stuff that allowed you to make an extra copy when you used a typewriter.)

Telecommunications is not a service! The confusion stems from a fundamental misunderstanding. It's as if we treated Standard Oil of Ohio as a transportation service and gave them control over transportation in return for a promise to be nice. The oil companies faced anti-trust enforcement while the mystique of new telephone service gave it special status.

Today the incumbents are still preying upon people's naivet� and fears. How can they get away with saying that people who create their own telephone calls using VoIP are doing something bad? After so many years why is there still something called the Universal Service fund? How could the ability to solve our own problems be seen as crippling the E911 system? This is despicable nonsense and worse, denies us the intended benefits of these social policies. Those opposing VoIP also raise the alarm that VoIP makes it difficult for the FBI to listen to our phone calls as if we had a responsibility to assure that all of our speech can be monitored.

Instead of worrying about disruption we should be outraged at being kept hostage to the myths of the past. We are victims of our own confusion and technical illiteracy. We shouldn't be surprised that the incumbents are doing what they can to maintain their privileged position thanks to their ability to define the services for us. It only works because their lies are consistent with our common sense misunderstandings.

We now have the concepts of bits and digital connectivity. The Internet is the antithesis of the service model -- it doesn't even promise to deliver every packet. Even something as obvious as a phone call or circuit turns out to be unnecessary. A century ago a phone call was an amazing feat but we have to get past that.

The goals of Universal Service are noble--we want to make sure that everyone can participate in society so we assure mail delivery to remote areas, provide electricity and, of course, phone service. If we view telephony as a service then it seems obvious that those who benefit from the service should help others get the same benefits. The problem with linking the policies is that it leaves us mired in the past and unable to rethink implicit assumptions. VoIP forces us to rethink these assumptions and we should be thankful for the wakeup call. (Are wakeup calls phone services?)

To assure inclusion we must move beyond traditional telecommunications! The Internet provides simple connectivity without the burden of antiquated telephony. It is not only less expensive but far more resilient and because we now know how to get much more capacity out of a given connection we can provide phone service almost as an afterthought. Far more important for the goal of inclusion is connecting everyone to information and giving them a voice! We can also get past the bias that presumes Universal Service is a rural issue. Today many of those in cities find connectivity to be a major burden.

The Universal Service fund was the result of a deal struck in return for exempting The Phone Company (ATT in those days, the others followed ATT's lead) from anti-trust by treating telephony as a natural monopoly. I do see it as a natural monopoly but only for local service where it can be just another boring utility. But giving ATT control over the national phone system played into the fears of Capitalism during the depression of the 1930's. ATT seemed to be the very embodiment of the benevolent monopolist with paternalistic pride in its tradition of service. ATT did indeed provide some of the best phone service in the world. It could act as if cost didn't matter because cost didn't matter. The government created a charge which would be used to fund rural telephony and then give the money back to ATT for that purpose. We'd pay all the costs and then thank the phone company for its generosity.

If we looked around the world at that time we could take pride in the American phone system as the best in the world. Who else could afford such a thing? In the 1960's they even offered to save our live by using one of the special x11 numbers for emergencies. With only one Phone Company it was simple. 411 was information, 211 was long distance, 611 was repair service etc. 9 was hard to dial on rotary phones and was thus available for the new emergency dialing system.

The phone was long considered a life line and with the advent of 9-1-1 (or E911) the phone companies were now officially in the business of saving our lives. The system was designed like any other phone gear. It had exact specifications in order to assure interoperability of equipment. With typical paternalism it was just assumed to be the best system and it was made a national standard. Details like whether it would work on internal phones or what happens with remote extensions etc could be simply defined away as non-problems.

Without competition whose to say it was possible to do better? It certainly wouldn't have been worth the risk of making fundamental changes. The system worked very well until we started to understand telecommunications. ATT's own Bell Labs contributed to this understanding. Claude Shannon's demonstrated that bits are just bits and thus there is nothing special about carrying telephone calls. ATT embraced this research and set out to create the Intelligent Network that became SS7. Both SS7 and the Internet came out of a common culture though the profound differences were not obvious at first. The transformation of telephony was already underway by the time the end-to-end principle of the Internet put an end to notion that there was anything special about telephony. A telephone call was just another bit stream.

The consequences were very real and very visible but the root causes were not understood. ATT volunteered to be broken up (divesture -- note the nostalgia for the good old days) after first resisting anti-trust enforcement. Instead of recognizing that the problem was that telephony wasn't special, ATT created many replicas of itself as the local operating companies as if telephony were still special and that the services were an intrinsic part of the network. Universal Service and E911 were kept and a whole new set of artifices were added in order to preserve the old assumptions. Even in the 1980's ATT knew that how little relationships there was between the prices and costs but chose to stay silent rather than facing up to the implications.

The deal that ATT struck in return for their special status survived because it was a burden shared by all the phone companies and thus there was no competitive disadvantage. To politicians it was a way to avoid the absolute panic at the T-word. It was a seemingly innocuous addiction until the Internet gave anyone the ability to create a telephone call at essentially no incremental cost. The first flurry of interest was confusing because the quality was poor. Third parties did use the technology to bypass the Telcos but that was temporary since the Telcos themselves converted to using the technology internally. And the phone network is essentially gone -- many of the switches remain but the system is being converted to using VoIP internally.

The Internet is able to take advantage of low cost or junk connectivity and as some of the capacity leaked out to consumers via cable modems and DSL (interim technologies in their own right) it was inevitable that the quality of consumer connectivity would make VoIP "just work". Vonage simply packaged available technologies into a package that I call faux telephony and could sell its services to the public as if it were another Telco.

Telcos had to face up to the inevitability that they had predicted -- the complete loss of revenue from voice telephony. It's one thing to talk about the future and it's another thing to confront it.

Rather than taking the lead in asking for transparency and treating E911 and Universal Service as real services they chose to try to burden their competition with the same disadvantage. It was easy because the regulatory system simply presumed that these were vital telephony services. And why tinker with a popular system that not only worked and but was popular enough to make it to prime time television.

The myth of Universal Service as a telephone issue creates a self-fulfilling myth by keeping the costs artificially high. And all we get are telephone calls and not real inclusion. Today we do have the e-rate which renews this deal for to get Internet connectivity. It should be no surprise that as part of the deal the incumbents get to prevent a real marketplace for the new technologies.

E911 was a wonderful idea. Pick up any phone anywhere and dial 9-1-1 and the police will speed towards your home. Not only that, but it's a wonderful television show. It's a great idea but the tendency to fixate on a particular approach leaves us mired in the past. Once again we pay the price for a lack of transparency. E911 service can use telephones but it is not a telephone service.

The myth of E911 blinds us to fundamental flaws in the design because these are the flaws of the legacy phone system. Each wire handles one connection at a time and that wire must be intact for thousands of feet. One break and it fails without a whimper. The information necessary for the E911 network is in databases that are supposed to track the circuit configuration and as land line phones become more mobile this becomes more difficult.

What is not as obvious is how much better we could do. With Internet technologies we can add other services such a medical monitoring and, for that matter, any monitoring we choose. And we can have multiple listeners since each packet can go to its own destination and we can have multiple destinations. We can also detect failures immediately -- IP connectivity is far more effective in emergencies and can be extended dynamically and immediately! The phone itself is not necessary and we can place emergency sensors anywhere we choose. Most important is that new services can be added and old ones improved without having to redesign the entire system. We would not burden ourselves with adherence to obsolescent protocols and equipment. The TV might not be as exciting because systems that work too well become mundane not remarkable. We should expect connectivity and not be surprised by it.

The incumbents play into our misunderstandings and prey upon our fears by implying that people will die without legacy telephony funding legacy versions of social services. If that weren't outrageous enough, they are the ones collecting the money back by providing those services.

OK, OK. I don't think that even the most adamant defenders of the status quo look at it this way.

Those enmeshed in the Regulatorium don't have the luxury of stepping back and rethinking the basic promises. The system is so tightly self-referential that you can't change any part of it from within. It's only by recognizing the need to rethink the basic premises and embracing opportunity rather than stifling requirements that we can move ahead.

The carriers may be more self-serving but there is still a tradition of service and many inside the companies they really believe that E911 is vital and must be kept as it is. Universal Service is easy to justify as long as you don't step back and recognize that the costs are just as artificial as the funding and that we can do far better.

To add to the confusion, the term "VoIP" used as if it describes a well defined service that must look like telephony. After all, it acts just like a phone call and we read about complicated protocols that depend on services. Those must be phone switches. That's like the blind men describing an elephant as being like a tree or a snake.

Voice of IP is simply a descriptive term and not a brand. It's not even a protocol. There are protocols such as SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and RTP (Real Time Protocol) that are used in creating what I call faux telephony but that's only one flavor. There are many variations that needn't look like telephony at all and the connections are direct from PC to PC. Voice conversations (and far more) are bundled in today's personal computers and many PDAs. It's a fairly simple idea. Skype, for example, creates encrypted point to point connections with better quality than normal telephones. Why not full quality stereo sound? The legacy network is that it is engineered with upper bounds on quality and it is just a "given"!

Services like Vonage are targeted because they have the temerity to package VoIP in a way that looks familiar to the owners of traditional telephones. It works just like the legacy phone network but without the phone network. It only touches the network as a courtesy for bridging calls between the old and new networks. In reality the legacy phone network itself is just an illusion -- it is rapidly using the same VoIP protocols itself. The incumbents will spend a lot of time arguing about the policies and then admit it is all a pointless exercise in regulatory gaming because they are no longer buying the equipment. They generate an incredible amount of fury as if there were vital issues at stake but it is about nothing but posturing that service to maintain the illusion of telephony.

Instead of looking for relief from the burden of funding these societal services they are seeking others share the burden because it creates an expense where innovation has eliminated all costs. Better to deny us all the benefits than risk transparency.

Yet even the incumbents can't help but take advantage of the opportunities themselves as they themselves VoIP companies. There is no real cost (above a low cost transport) so we are starting compelling offers with strange anomalies that occur in the absence of a real marketplace. For example ATT offers me unlimited US calls for a flat $40/month no matter how many phone lines I have. Vonage doesn't do this yet though there is no reason they can't. But local service operates under tight rules that create a cost for local calls -- I can call everywhere in the United States for the flat rate except across the street. For that I must pay for local service that costs more per line than what ATT charges for the rest of the country for all of my lines!

This madness actually makes me optimistic. The current telecommunications infrastructure is getting too weird since it is nothing more than a veneer--like a badly done fake antique. The incumbents are doing what would be expected within this game -- trying their best to stay relevant while they scramble to reinvent themselves. There is actually some truth in the concept of a monopoly but it's a local monopoly or utility. Instead of worrying about VoIP they should be concentrating and reinventing themselves in a world where connectivity is just another utility. I've focused on the wired telephones but it's just as true in wireless especially as we get past the assumption that the presence or absence of the wire matters at all.

Ultimately it is our fault for accepting the myth of telecommunications. The antidote is not more regulation. We must ask how to best meet our societal needs. Internet connectivity is a wonderful opportunity. It gives us all a change to contribute solutions. We should demand true inclusion and not just universal telephony. And we must demand a real system for providing for our safety and not suffer nostalgia for the good old days when E911 was miraculous. Compare with what we can do today with technologies we use everyday the E911 system is a real antique.

We must not let our fear keep us hostage to the past! The incumbents predicted the impact of VoIP but have decided to fight it instead of embracing it. We must recognize that threats to deny us universal service and E911 as posturing at best. Even if they are doing so with the best intentions it is obvious that not only is this claim not true, we are suffering greatly from accepting it.

After divestiture in the 1980's phone companies continued to charge people for renting their telephones. Many people continued to pay and eventually the FTC took action. I want the incumbents to be on notice that continued intransigence that threatens our health and safety are more than just business games -- they create the very dangers that they warn us against and I don't think that such efforts are defensible. Perhaps my claims are arguable but those most aware of the technologies are choosing to convert their own networks to using IP. That's a direct admission that the new approaches are so much better than the old that they must be adopted even as they pretend those embracing the opportunities should be regulated out of existence.

Otherwise we'll continue to pay the price for ignorance and superstitious belief in the existence of telecommunications.