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The Impact of Open Connectivity

The Internet hints at the much larger possibilities of open connectivity in enabling discoveries such as the web but for the physical world. The ideas themselves go to a deeper level of thinking about how we build systems and how we can enable the future.

This post is aimed at people building systems and devices which can be interconnected to create systems and meta-devices.

Overview

Roads and sidewalks can cost millions of dollars per mile, yet they are free-to-use. Yet, as the Internet has become a fundamental infrastructure necessary for education, remote work, healthcare, and so much more, there is a fee for connecting even though it costs only thousands of dollars per mile with that cost going down. Between the Internet connection and each cell phone, why must families pay thousands of dollars a year for something so fundamental as the ability to communicate? Why isn’t it a right, not a privilege?

Even more to the point, when public funds are used to pay for broadband, why doesn’t the community own it? One might hire a company to manage the facilities, but it makes little sense to then prevent people from using it so they can collect a fee, especially where those facilities have already been paid for with public funds. We accept this because that’s how the phone network worked, but the Internet is fundamentally different.

This is tragic because real innovation occurs when we remove the need to ask for permission and have the resources to build on. Electronic spreadsheets and the web happened because individuals could try out ideas without having to justify large upfront costs. They only hint at the possibilities of a connected world taking advantage of the abundance of our electronic commons.

The magic of the Internet is in the protocols that allow us to share the commons like we share sidewalks and other common facilities.

A free-to-use approach will put thousands of dollars into the hands of each family as they become owners of the common facilities rather than having to pay a monthly fee forever. It also eliminates the need for complex compensation schemes that try to work around a digital divide rather than simply eliminating the cause.

Today’s Internet

Today’s Internet has been transformational. We now take Zoom for granted, yet as recently as 2019, it was unimaginable that there was sufficient capacity and availability. Today we can’t imagine a world in which we couldn’t collaborate remotely. Even more amazing is what was formerly unaffordable is now free-to-use—at least where there is already connectivity.

We are on the verge of abundance—we remove the barriers and take advantage of what we already have. Now that broadband is becoming universally available (even if not yet everywhere), we need to understand how to seize the opportunity.

All the remarkable value created using the Internet only hints at future possibilities.

Railroads as Transport Providers Roads as Infrastructure

The transition from railroads to roads provides us with an example of a transition from transport as a service to infrastructure, enabling anyone to offer transport as a service but so much more. We were no longer limited to destinations that were profitable to the railroads. We didn’t need to buy an expensive ticket just to go to the grocery.

It’s worth noting that the high capital costs and the inability to differentiate services made railroad economics problematic, leading the industry to seek regulatory protection (Railroaded).

In sharp contrast, roads are market-driven in that each community can fund its own roads (in cooperation with nearby communities). The value accrues to the communities which pay for them as a whole. Roads enable innovation since they aren’t limited to a provider’s need to make a profit. A bus operator isn’t competing with the roads transport service.

The Internet as Infrastructure

The Internet has worked so well because we don’t have to think about the complexity. You can, for example, just type in the name of a web page, and you’re there.

Telehealth is another example. In the past, you’d read about complex and expensive telehealth projects, but it turns out that simply using video realizes a large part of the goal of telehealth using very inexpensive webcams.

One reason why this works so well is that all the uses share a single common broadband connection. Few today remember a time when you would find the phone line busy if someone was online and you wanted to connect to another computer or simply talk. Thanks to the Internet protocols, all the devices can share a single connection.

We don’t have to preallocate capacity as we did in the days when we’d run a separate wire for each phone line whether or not it was in use.

More “Internet”

How do we get more of this available and increase the abundance of capacity?

Today we can’t assume everyone can get the benefits of digital health and remote learning because getting connected can be expensive, and provisioning rules limit the capacity. This system is maintained by a regulatory regimen modeled on the regulation of 19th-century railroads.

By switching to an infrastructure model and having communities pay for the whole, we get a market-based solution because the value accrues to the community as a whole. This allows the communities to get the same benefits that corporations, college campuses, and home networks get by pooling their resources and using Internet protocols to share the abundance rather than preallocating the capacity so that it becomes unavailable to others even when idle.

If you think about it, it seems strange that roads that can cost a million dollars a mile are free-to-use. But the Internet connections that can cost thousands of dollars a mile and whose cost is going down rapidly are often too expensive for those with vital needs for education and healthcare.

An infrastructure model has many additional benefits, with communities becoming owners rather than never ever being able to pay off the financing fee.

Sharing capacity can greatly reduce the cost. Cities often have multiple broadband connections when anyone would serve the city as a whole. Market forces aren’t working because of the legacy of complex regulations. A community-owned facility would be answerable to market forces as equipment providers bid for their business.

Think about buying a $200 smartwatch with a cellular chip but paying $20/month forever to use it. Why is a provider getting more money than the manufacturer of the watch? If you have a separate device that measures your blood pressure, it can also connect directly but only with an additional monthly fee for each device. This is why we try to pair each device to form a path. That is unnecessarily complex and error-prone, and the failure of any step in the path makes it fail. The Internet approach is resilient and works as long as we can find any path. Sharing common facilities provides the opportunity to find success.

A family paying a thousand dollars a year for a broadband connection covers the cost in the first year. Once it is paid off, why does the family still pay the full amount? Imagine if that money were available to the family. Repeat this for each cell phone, and we have thousands of dollars returned to each family each year.

But Wait, There’s More!

We tolerate the high costs because the value we get is so great. But today’s value is dwarfed by the future possibilities of free-to-use infrastructure. The most transformational ideas happen when individuals or small groups can try out ideas before they know whether they work.

I know this from personal experience. In 1978 my friend, Dan Bricklin, had the idea for the electronic spreadsheet, and we implemented it on the Apple 2, which was considered a toy computer. It was so inexpensive that individuals would buy it. It enabled financial people to play with numbers like kids played video games.

In the early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee used the connectivity available on university campuses to create the World Wide Web. He didn’t actually build the entire web—he simply created the conditions so anyone could contribute to the web.

It takes time for the ideas to build on each other, and initially, the implementations are simple as they were for early web pages. It would’ve been hard to imagine implementing today’s virtual reality games in the web browser.

Today I can buy a simple pill cap that resets when I open it. Given that a computer with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth costs $2, it’s easy to see that that pill bottle could report the opening to a caregiver, thus allowing people to age gracefully at home.

In fact, such connected devices have been built but were stymied by the need to negotiate with a provider for connectivity. Imagine what becomes possible if we could assume connectivity with no additional fee.

A shift to free-to-use would enable the discoveries that drive the future. We could rapidly explore new ideas rather than having to first spend billions (in some cases). By investing in a common infrastructure, we share the costs and greatly reduce the risk by being able to find value in what is available rather than focus solely on what creates value for shareholders. Millions of people experimenting may produce only a handful of ideas, but that’s sufficient—as we saw with spreadsheets and the web.

Another example was discovering that a simple Voice over IP implementation inside a company, VocalTec, worked on the wider Internet. It is a good example because the engineers at VocalTec didn’t even realize this until they found their customers using the program on the Internet. This is a striking example because it defies simple cause and effect—it worked because of the capacity created for the help. Yet that simple innovation is the basis for 4G (LTE) and 5G. But it also means we don’t need a separate telecommunications network, thus getting even more benefits from free-to-use connectivity.

Amazon understands the value of open connectivity and is creating its own overlay network—Sidewalk (not to be confused with Google’s effort with the same name)—in order to provide Amazon devices with free-to-use connectivity. This fundamental capability should be available to all, not just the largest companies.

New Frontiers

Communities pooling their resources is a very powerful concept. When we look at the disconnected, the ability to pool resources creates value among the community. A village clinic becomes accessible even if there isn’t wider connectivity. Instead of needing to connect each individual with an account, the village has a whole benefit from the economics of a shared connection.

A farming community has a way to deploy crop and livestock management tools without having to build a separate infrastructure for each purpose.

Getting There from Here

The transition from railroads to roads happened when the internal combustion engine enabled lightweight vehicles to operate on the available roads without depending on a track owner. People could choose how to share the roads and decide for themselves whether to wait in a traffic jam or drive at another time. They would also invest in new infrastructure such as the interstate highway system.

We can approach connectivity on its own terms as an economic opportunity. In the mid-1990s, I was at Microsoft and championed the effort to share a single connection among all the devices in the home. Thus, you can bring as many computers, Wi-Fi phones, light bulbs, and anything else you can imagine without any additional fee or negotiation.

This same approach works for a community, whether a city or a local coop. Since there is no reason to limit use, that capacity can be available wirelessly as well as wired, thus creating the opportunity to use the connectivity as municipal infrastructure.

The economic advantage of ownership over being a tenant is compelling in this case. Today a provider (a cable company, perhaps) might offer a retail gigabit connection, and the provider gets the benefit of the markup. As owners, the community gets the economic benefit. You may notice that a gigabit connection is only a few dollars a month more than a hundred-megabit connection. That hints that something is awry and creates the opportunity to better.

As part of broadband funding, we need to explicitly support community efforts as an option and educate groups on how to take advantage of free-to-use connectivity.

Wait, Wait, There’s Even More!

The concepts that enable the Internet have a lot with the ideas driving cryptocurrency—linking information using abstract identifiers. The pill bottle doesn’t need a dedicated connection to connect to a caregiver’s system. It just needs a shared identifier which is similar to how web pages are connected. The magic of the Internet is enabling those two endpoints to find each other and exchange data without having to think about all that complexity. That’s why you can go to a web page without thinking about it.

On day one, free-to-use connectivity will use existing protocols and approaches, but once we’re no longer confined to billable pipes, we’ll discover the future we can’t imagine.

Today’s cloud services are limited by the need for a provider who owns the path to make a profit. By removing the constraint, we’ll see billions, if not trillions, of dollars in the creation of new value. And as we noted above, families will have thousands of dollars a year to spend.

The United States Advantage

Open connectivity creates opportunities for innovation and value creation. That value will not be available to countries that fear open connectivity.

Open connectivity has risks, and it will take time to navigate the new landscape. At first, we’ll keep some of the artifacts, such as firewalls (the modern equivalent of walled cities), but, over time, we’ll learn how to take advantage of open connectivity for our devices.

That doesn’t mean we can’t deal with misinformation and other challenges. Those aren’t properties of the network but rather how we use it. Facebook and Twitter are applications outside the Internet. That won’t change with open connectivity. If anything, we’ll create more opportunity to do better by removing unnecessary barriers to connectivity.

Stakeholders

The most obvious stakeholders are the cloud services companies whose ability to provide services, and support devices is limited by having an intermediary who sees services as adding value to their facilities.

When a service is implemented as an application in a device, the transport owner gets no benefit from providing additional capacity. That is a fundamental problem with traditional funding. Cloud service companies are leaving many billions of dollars in value on the table because of these gatekeepers. That gives them a great incentive to support local ownership of the facilities.

The existing telecommunications companies also face a dilemma in funding the build-out of broadband—hence the need for government support. An infrastructure model makes the community, as a whole, the customer. The companies can continue to operate as they do today, except that the bill goes to the community (as in city hall) rather than retail to each individual. That removes the cost and complexity and simplifies being resilient since there is no longer a worry about free riders. But it’s a wrenching change since many of the givens of network engineering no longer apply. Buffer bloat is just one example of the problem with old practices in the new context.

Perhaps a better approach is to invest in new companies, including cloud services, far from their core business. As Doc Searles said, you make money using networks and not by owning them. AOL repeatedly spun off its networks for this reason, and when Verizon acquired them, it was not a great fit. That is more reason for the traditional companies to take advantage of capitalism and to shift their capital to where the value will be. There is no magic formula for predicting the future, but these companies have the scale to spread their risks.

The real stakeholders are those who can innovate using the new opportunities, but the process is simpler if large players see themselves as a stakeholder in the future.

In the early 2000s, Massachusetts invested in creating a climate for biotech, which paid off handsomely. Communities that are first-movers in providing free-to-use connectivity will be poised to generate entire new industries and bring huge economic benefits to their states. That isn’t just the US; any state (AKA, country) stands to benefit.

Summary

Free-to-use connectivity brings many benefits by using our existing facilities far more wisely than we do now.

  • Economic – it brings incentives in line with benefits in the whole, not the parts
  • Abundance – pooling works far better than preallocating dedicated lanes.
  • Finance – Ownership of the whole puts thousands of dollars into the pockets of families Innovation and Virtuous
  • Cycle – if the middle disappears, we’ll see rapid value creation
  • Health and education – barriers disappear
  • Work anywhere anytime

By Bob Frankston, IEEE Fellow

Bob Frankston is best known for writing VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. While at Microsoft, he was instrumental in enabling home networking. Today, he is addressing the issues associated with coming to terms with a world being transformed by software.

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