VON Visions: Connectivity is a Utility
It's easy to understand the desire to keep businesses alive long past their expiration dates. Such policies are considered "pro business" when they are just the opposite -- they show distrust for the marketplace and its ability to reinvent itself. One might justify the policy if it preserves jobs and meets other needs but the tele/com industry is costing us jobs and frustrating the creation of new industries that can create new jobs and value. Connectivity is another utility like garbage collection, electricity, public roads etc. The value comes from the availability of connectivity but policies that require capturing the value of each service don’t permit innovation because nascent services typically don't seem valuable at first. The utility model is a business model. Providing connectivity as a utility is the real pro-business policy.
04-Jul-2005Version 2: 2023-05-28 17:09:26

It’s time to share and share alike.

You can share a driveway with your neighbor; why not share your Internet connection? You may already be sharing the connection since many services simply give you access to a shared medium. It's not as if you were 'stealing' electricity by shifting the costs to your neighbor, you are just reducing your bill.

We are prisoners of our fears and our metaphors. We treat Internet connectivity as if there were a real service or cost. We act as if we are consuming something real. We accept charging for connectivity as if it were another television channel or phone service. We pay per endpoint just as we pay per set top box, per landline and per cell phone.

Today we pay for Internet connectivity per subscriber. In traditional telephony a subscriber had a single phone at the end of a long wire that ran to the central office. You could share wires (the old 'party lines'), but you still paid per instrument (phone).

As long as services are defined by a provider and carried via distinct wires, that charging regimen seems to make sense. You only pay for Cable TV per household- the per TV charge is only a rental fee for the Set Top Box. With analog cable services the STB isn't required. You do, however, pay for a service to get access to HBO content.

We can compare it with the difference between paying per book or per read. One works and one doesn't. Providers have no business looking at how we use the packets. It's in the nature of the Internet that we can extend the net ourselves. The carrier doesn't define the meaning of the bits and hence cannot dictate how they are to be used.

We understand subscribing to HBO as a service but why not do that directly over the Internet connection instead of having to pay a carrier to transport the bits? Imagine if HBO could get 100% of the fee instead of 15%.

When home networks were starting to become popular, the carriers claimed they were being cheated and wanted to charge per computer. But home network users were defining their own services and such charges seemed like both an arbitrary tax and an invasion of pricy. The whole house acted like a single computer. Why should the carrier know about each printer or be notified when a friend visited with a laptop?

The home network is an aggregation unit. Why not share with our neighbors, block or the whole city? It's like buying wholesale but far better. Per-subscriber billing prevents the net from being an effective commons. We get a major benefit in taking connectivity to the next step and allowing it to leak out into the wireless space via 802.11. 802.11 is a perfectly fine medium for VoIP. In such an environment cellular telephony makes no more sense than paying for a landline. It's not just about price; it's about getting better quality and new kinds of services.

The meaning of the bits does not depend upon the path they take. It's only because the current IP protocols make mobility difficult that carriers have any control at all. Web browsers can use your connection for one page and your neighbor's for the next page. It actually takes effort to keep the packets from finding the most effective path. This is especially true when using wireless protocols such as 802.11.

Not only is it difficult to prevent sharing, but it's expensive. If aggregation is easy and provides great economic benefits, then why do we try so hard to prevent it at an enormous cost in complexity and at an enormous price for the users? Even worse, the limitations discourage vital applications like medical monitoring because you can't assume casual connectivity!

Once connectivity is 'just there', we don't need to contain it within wires. Wireless access points become a public good. The PSTN lost to IP because of simple economics. The complexities of the cellular phone system are impressive and fatal.

Despite the limitations of current transport protocols, P2P approaches like Skype and improved SIP demonstrate that we will find mobility without waiting for a new Internet (even as I am working on better protocols).

The utility model is a business model-it is a way to fund and maintain connectivity and assure increasing capacity. Telecommunications is an artificial industry kept alive at a cost in defiance of economics and normal marketplace forces. It's not just about money-the freedom to connect is priceless!