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First Square Mile is not the Last or First Mile: Discovery not Just Choices!

The term “last mile” highlights the fact that we are the consumers at the end of a broadband “pipe”. Saying “first mile” is a little better but the Internet is not a pipe to or from somewhere else. It’s about what we can do locally and then what we can do when we interconnect with other neighborhoods. It’s better to describe our neighborhood as the first square mile. Telecom is about selling us services; the Internet is about what we can do ourselves locally and then interconnecting with others everywhere. In writing the First Square Mile - Our Neighborhood essay which I just posted I came to better understand the fundamental difference between the world of telecom which is about giving you choices and the Internet which provides opportunity to discover what we can’t anticipate.

By taking a constructive approach we avoid having to fix problems with network neutrality and don’t have to wait for that last mile of broadband. As we become more adept at doing our own networking we will no longer need ICANN to manage a Procrustean naming system - the DNS - nor will we have to get an IP address assigned. Today’s Internet will have served its purpose in giving us a hint of what we can do if we aren’t dependent upon others to do our networking.

I’ve been surprised by the number of times I’ve been told that 500 channels of television is real choice - but it’s not about choice - it’s about discovery. YouTube is not a different kind of television - anyone can contribute as well as choose. The real significance is that YouTube itself was created outside of telecom. You don’t know who will create the next Web, Yahoo, Google, YouTube or whatever. The odds are a million to one but those are very good odds when many millions have the opportunity to try.

Skype provides us with another example of solving problems outside the network - it manages to make connections by finding its own path through the network. We don’t have to wait for a network operator to provide a new feature. A Skype call looks just like a traditional phone call except that it can sound better and provide messaging and even video. But these features are not important in themselves - they are just examples of taking advantage of opportunities.

What Skype is doing is the equivalent of driving your own car to a train station and then using the railroad’s network to get you near your destination and then driving yourself (in another car). But you don’t have to take the railroad - you can find your own path. This is especially true locally. If two computers are on the same wire or share the same access point you simply drop the packet into the Ether and all computers can see it but only the one to which it is addressed will pick it up. As the network grows we may want to be a little smarter and remember some of the paths and prevent packets from going in circles but that’s relatively simple. It isn’t much different for a neighborhood network.

Today’s inter-networking isn’t really that simple - we have complex algorithms to assure efficient utilization of the entire network while minimizing what network operators have to pay each other. This is because we treat our local network as part of the vast Internet one or more miles away. The problem becomes simpler when we just need to worry about our local network and can take advantage of the abundance to focus on what we do rather than the operational details. We don’t operate the networks in our homes - we just use them and it becomes easier as the software improves. Interconnecting these networks is simple when can take advantage of the abundant capacity that is currently locked up by service providers whose business models depend upon scarcity.

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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