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For the form of life we call business, we are at a boundary between eras. For biological forms of life, the most recent of these is the K-T boundary between the  and the Eras. The Mezozoic Era ended when Earth was struck by an object that left a crater 110 miles wide and a world-wide layer of iridium-rich crud. Below that layer lies the Age of Dinosaurs, completed. Above that layer accumulate the fossils of life forms that survived the change, and took advantage of it. Notable among these is a branch of theropod dinosaurs we call birds.

In business we have the I-I boundary: the one between the Industrial and Information ages (which Alvin Toffler first observed in The Third Wave, published in 1980).  Below that boundary we find a communications environment dominated by telecom and cablecom. Above it we find a radically different communications environment that still supports voice and video, but as just two among an endless variety of other applications. We call that environment the Internet.

At this moment in history most of us know the Internet as a tertiary service of telephone and cable companies, which still make most of their money selling telephone service and cable TV. Since those are highly regulated businesses, the Internet is subject to degrees of regulatory capture. Some of that capture is legal, but much of it is conceptual, for example when we see the Internet as a grace of telecom and cablecom — rather than as something that subsumes and obsoletes both of those Industrial Age frames.

Such is the risk with “broadband” — a term inherited by the Internet from both telecom and cablecom, and which is a subject of interest for both Congress and the FCC. In April of this year the FCC announced the development of a national broadband plan, subtitled “Seeks Public Input on Plan to Ensure Every American has Access to Broadband Capability”. In July the commission announced that Harvard’s Berkman Center would conduct “an independent review of broadband studies” to assist the FCC. Then yesterday the center put up a notice that it “is looking for a smart, effective fellow to join our broadband research team”. (This is more than close to home for me, since I am a fellow at Berkman. So I need to say that the broadband studies review is not my project — mine is this one — and that I am not speaking for the Berkman Center here, or even in my capacity as a fellow.)

The challenge here for everybody is to frame our understanding of the Net, and of research concerning the Net, in terms that are as native to the Net as possible, and not just those inherited from the Industrial Age businesses to which it presents both threats and promise — the former more obvioius than the latter. This will be very hard, because the Internet conversation is still mostly a telecom and cablecom conversation. (It’s also an entertainment industry conversation, to the degree that streaming and sharing of audio and video files are captive to regulations driven by the recording and movie industries.)

This is the case especially for legislators and regulators, too few of which are technologists. Some years ago Michael Powell, addressing folks pushing for network neutrality legislation, said that he had met with nearly every member of Congress during his tour of duty as FCC chairman, and that he could report that nearly all of them knew very little about two subjects. “One is technology, and the other is economics,” he said. “Now proceed.”

Here is what I am hoping for, as we proceed both within this study and beyond it to a greater understanding of the Internet and the new Age it brings on:

  • That “broadband” comes to mean the full scope of the Internet’s capabilities, and not just data speeds.
  • That we develop a native understanding of what the Internet really is, including the realization that what we know of it today is just an early iteration.
  • That telecom and cablecom companies not only see the writing on the wall for their old business models, but embrace other advantages of incumbency, including countless new uses and businesses that can flourish in an environment of wide-open and minimally encumbered connectivity — which they have a privileged ability to facilitate.
  • That the Net’s capacities are not only those provided from the inside out by “backbone” and other big “carriers”, but from the outside in by individuals, small and mid-size businesses (including other Internet service providers, such as WISPs) and municipalities.

That last item is important because carriers are the theropods of our time. To survive, and thrive, they need to adapt. The hardest challenge for them is to recognize that the money they leave on the shrinking Industrial Age table is peanuts next to the money that will appear on the Information Age table they are in a privileged position to help build.

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In The Office of Connectivity Advocacy, Bob Frankston argues for something we’ve needed a long time: prying the Net from the regulatory grips of telecom and cablecom, both of which are inside the FCC and part of a regulatory mess that traces back past the 1996 and 1934 telecoms acts, all the way to the railroad thinking and legislation that modeled those acts.

What we need, Bob says, is to re-frame the Net outside of telecom (which includes cablecom as well). The Net needs to be more than just the third act in a “Triple Play” sold by phone and cable companies. It needs to be more — and other — than just a “service” we get from monopolists operating in an old regulatory habitat.

Inside our homes we do not negotiate with, or pay, a “printing service” to use our printers. Nor are our phone and cable companies required to hook our computers and other appliances together inside our homes. As a result, there is no issue of speed, no need for “broadband”, because we enjoy much limitless network speeds without a “service provider” in the middle.

Some specifics:

We need a “Connectivity Strategy” with a champion; a “Connectivity Advocate” who is outside the FCC and is thus can focus on a positive agenda. “Internet Connectivity” is not a telecommunications service but something new. It is based on the idea that we can create our own solutions out of imperfect resources. And it has proven to be an exceptionally powerful idea.

It has allowed us to create new solutions by focusing on the end points of relationships rather than all the myriad points between. We’ve seen a similar dynamic with the interstate (defense) highway system that has been credited with adding trillions of dollars to the economy. The Internet-connectivity has the potential to do far more because it doesn’t have the limits of the roads and demand creates supply.

The challenge is to overcome the artifacts that we confuse with the powerful idea. We happened to have repurposed existing telecommunications infrastructure and thus the idea has become captive of the incumbents whose business of charging for transporting bits as a service is threatened. To add to this confusion we can easily spoof existing telecommunications services ourselves but still act as if only a carrier can provide the services.

Instead of spending so much time and effort forcing connectivity into a service framing we need to be able to focus on connectivity from first principles. After all, the Internet (as connectivity) and Telecom have no intrinsic relationship beyond their common use of electromagnetism to transport bits.

By having an Office of Connectivity Advocacy (I’m open to a better title) outside the FCC we can have a positive and proactive strategy. We have abundant existing resources that are lying fallow either because we don’t recognize what we have or are forbidden from competing with those who control are very means of communicating and the vital information paths we use for commerce.

So look at it this way. What we have inside the free spaces of our own homes is connectivity. What we have outside of our homes, through telco and cable systems, is broadband. The latter may seem desirable, but only in the absence of free (as in liberty, not price) alternatives.

Bob sees the Internet less as a physical infrastructure of CFR (copper, fiber and radios) than as a “bit commons” to which we all contribute. It’s an ocean rather than canals across a desert. Its nature is one of abundance, not scarcity. One can only make it scarce, which is what phone and cable companies do, even as they increase our broadband speeds to larger fractions of what we have at home for free.

Bob has specific recommendations for what an Office of Connectivity Advocacy would do. Read them and give Bob (and the Transition Team) constructive feedback. Here’s part of his post:

Initially the OCA would be charged with:

  • Empowering communities and individuals to create their own solutions using common facilities – the bit commons.
  • Education and research focused on achieving and taking advantage of end-to-end connectivity.
    • Educating Congress to understand the meaning and value of connectivity. Ideally it would play the role of providing a first-principles reality check rather than just checking for conformance to regulations. For example, a call is completed when the message gets through, not when a phone rings.
    • Assist the government in its own use of technology both for its own use and as an example for others. It could encourage technologies that have wide market appeal rather than just those that can conform to government RFPs.
    • Developing enlightened investment strategies which don’t try to capture all of the value.
    • Supporting research in using networking rather than the networks themselves.
    • Supporting research in how to get more out of existing physical facilities as well as encouraging new technologies.
    • Developing decentralized protocols for connectivity rather than today’s provider-centric IP
    • Working to simplify building applications using public connectivity (the bit commons). This could be mundane telemedicine, community information or …
  • Acting as an advocate for a transition from a telecom framing to a connectivity framing:
    • Evaluating existing assets and business practice afresh without the century old technical and policy presumptions.
    • Working towards a bit commons or common infrastructure including removing the artificial distinctions between wired and unwired bits.
    • Assisting in transitioning the existing telecommunications industry to industries supporting and taking advantage of connectivity.

At first glance the idea of the OCA may seem fanciful but it’s far easier to start afresh than trying to struggle out of the mire of the existing Regulatorium. We didn’t build the automobile by modifying stage coaches – we just used our understanding of wheeled vehicles to start afresh.

Starting afresh is essential to the telcos and cablecos as well. They need to see the Internet as something more, and other, than just a “service” they provide. Their existing phone and cable TV business models are in trouble. Charging for Net access is no gold mine, either. They need to start looking for ways of making money because of the Net and not merely with it. This is what Google and Amazon have done with “cloud” services. (Many of Google’s are in this list here. Amazon’s are here.) The only thing keeping the phone and cable companies from being in similar or allied businesses is a lack of imagination. Also a lack of appreciation for advantages of incumbency other than the ability to charge folks for broadband alone. These companies have waterfront property on the Net’s ocean. They also have direct relationships with customers. Those relationships can be used for much more than billing and essential services alone.

It would be much easier for these guys to start thinking outside their boxes if the Net were split off from the phone and cable regulatoria. And that Nick Carr’s Big Switch would happen a lot faster. (By the way, for thinking outside the box, it’s fun to read Nick’s post on Microsof’ts “trailer park” based cloud infrastructure.)

I wrote here,

Phone and cable companies today are in a lousy position to run the Internet business. Telephony and Cable TV are railroads and steamships. They “carry” the Net as a “service”, but the Net isn’t essentially a service. It’s just a way to connect things. Connectivity is what matters. Not “broadband”, much as it appeals within the context of phone and cable companies’ limited offerings and imaginations. Who will imagine what can be done when connectivity is freed up? Phone and cable companies? I’d rather bet on the people leaving those companies.

If phone and cable companies want to attract rather than lose its most original engineers, they it would help if they got out of the old regulatory frame and into a new one that separates the Net from their legacy monopolies.

More about Bob.

Bonus link: Beyond Telecom: Bob Frankston on the Future We Make for Ourselves. It’s is an interveiw I did with Bob earlier this year, for Linux Journal.

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