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Whose Network is it Anyway?

In reading a Q&A with Verizon’s Brian Whitten I found this striking Q and A:

Q. With a fiber connection being symmetric, many fiber providers such as Paxio (www.paxio.net) are providing symmetric connections such as 5Mbit, 10Mbit, 30Mbit. Why is Verizon keeping this arbitrary asymmetric limit with Fiber?

A. Our products are carefully crafted based on feedback we get from our customers. Indeed, our FTTP network can easily support a symmetric data service. As market dynamics change, we would re-assess the benefit to our customers of introducing a class of symmetric data services.

My reaction is “No thank you, I’d rather do it myself”. To understand my reaction you need to recognize the difference between wanting to build my own bridge across a stream and asking why I’m not allowed to cross it myself using my own boat.

What more could we ask for than a company being attentive to its customers needs? Of course we have a right to be cynical because it is being nice to us so we’d buy more product but that’s the way markets work. Competition keeps this process in check. You can’t satisfy all customers but at least you can try to satisfy most. This is the marketplace at its best.

Yet if we are denied the ability to create our own solutions then this marketplace is dysfunctional. And this is the essence of the problem with today’s telecommunications industry ? those setting policy seem unaware of what we are being denied. Thus we fall into the trap of creating competition to give us more of what we already have while denying us the ability to do so much better. It’s Hobson’s choice rather than opportunity.

Perhaps the lessons of FiOSTV will make it clear that in making us dependent upon service providers we risk losing what we already have. This became very clear when I recently subscribed to Verizon’s FiOSTV service and discovered that their Actiontec router kept failing because of the way I use my home network to connect with the rest of the Internet. In checking online I find that I am not alone. The Actiontec router is actually a very good router and probably works very well for most people but Verizon makes the na├»ve assumption that the Internet is just like the phone network and beholden to rigid specifications rather than part of an ongoing process of discovery.

The problem is not in the router itself but in the fact that I don’t have an alternative if I am to use the broadband TV service. Fortunately, for now, I can pay extra to buy my video from Comcast while still being able to use Verizon’s basic FiOS Internet connectivity. But broadband policy doesn’t assure that this will remain true because the Internet is a service defined by the carriers’ rather than the users as it was when we used modems. If you look at the broadband specifications it is obvious that it is indeed a service delivery system controlled by the carriers in their role as privileged service providers but is equally clear that they are not competent. According to http://www.mocalliance.com, the Internet was designed for data not video and that’s why they need to install their own old-style cumbersome coax in my house. And yet they use it to run the same Internet protocols ? huh?

A more realistic explanation is that they must control the network in order to assure that change is managed. While the network in my house went from modem speeds in the early 1990’s to gigabit speeds while costing nothing to operate, DSL went from a few megabits in 1987 to a few megabits in 2007. As long as we must rely on a service provider we are assured that there will be little innovation.

By having full control they can use the most expedient solution which has the added bonus of making us entirely dependent upon them thus undermining the key dynamic that has enabled innovation. The end-to-end principle assures that we create solutions outside the network itself thus we are not dependent upon a provider’s choice of services and the price demanded for using these services. Understanding how and why this works is central to understanding the nature of the Internet and the dynamic that has given us so much. It is this ability to find solutions ourselves that has enabled demand to create supply. We can choose any transport and are not limited to the high priced choices of a single service provider.

This is the essence of the hyper-growth we associated with Moore’s Law. We might fashion solutions despite broadband but, as I’ve explained, we can do far more if we didn’t have to work so hard just to get past today’s gatekeepers. Are we sacrificing our future for the sake of ringtones and some 1995 vintage HDTV??

The question is not whether or not Verizon is acting responsibly, the problem is they are in the role of gatekeeper and we know we can do much better. Broadband Policy forces us to ask “may I? Please?” while denying us the ability to create our own solutions. The tragedy is that we can do it better ourselves. But instead we ask for more of that broadband because that’s the way we misspell “Internet”.

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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