Captured Value

Bob FrankstonBob Frankston posted a great explanation of the end-to-end principle, titled Demystifying Networks, in which he points out:

The ability to connect devices becomes even more important when we have powerful devices that we can use for any purpose. The computer power now locked within a smart phone becomes far more valuable when we can treat it as a general purpose device rather than just a telephone.

His article goes into a lot more than just connecting devices; it covers some history and perspective on our present situation in regulatory matters and where we might be going if we wanted to realize the full value of networking our devices and needs. Provocatively, Frankston asks, “What if telecommunications providers were not necessary?”

Indeed, if we viewed the telecom operators as service providers like we do our electric or gas companies, or our roads and other infrastructure providers, then ask how well our communities would tolerate being told we can only toast a limited number of loafs of bread before we incur additional charges, we might better understand the mismatch that we’re operating under now.

In a Connected Planet article called Broadband payback not just about subscriber revenues, author Joan Engebretson reminds us that:

The upshot is that in doing a cost/benefit analysis on telecom infrastructure investment, it’s important to take into account not only the direct revenues that the infrastructure generates but also the dollars that flow into a community as a result of the investment.

Imagine trying to sell a home today that only had party line phone service and think about the impact that would have on the value of the home. Now apply that logic to broadband. With two-thirds of U.S. households accustomed to having broadband connectivity, I’m already hearing that homes in areas with inadequate broadband coverage are becoming more difficult to sell. And that situation is only going to get worse as young people who never knew a world without broadband begin to buy homes.

Have you looked at the Terms of Service being offered by your Internet Service Provider? Does it (figuratively) limit the amount of toast you can make? Are you prohibited from connecting or using certain devices as you might wish? The ultimate value of your network is being limited by regulatory capture, billable moments, and artificial scarcity. The network doesn’t have to be this limiting.

A Global Internet Plan for America

The National Broadband Plan hasn’t been completed as a draft or even bullet points, but the ax is already coming down. The Plan is likely to disappoint us, says Business Week in their article National Broadband Plan: Why Consumers May Be Let Down:

Defining broadband is an important effort (so is mapping out where broadband is), but consumers are likely to be disappointed by the National Broadband Plan, because the divide between what the American people want and how the government works means a lot of consumers’ desires will fall into the chasm between.

There’s no “likely” about it. American citizens who are hoping for better access to the Internet–or any access at all–will most certainly be disappointed to find out that nothing will change except for the increasing cost. I’m not surprised, but wish it wasn’t costing taxpayers so much.

Telecom lobbyists are paying less and getting more for their campaign contributions these days. I don’t see a reason to believe that things will change, given the current perspective and dialog. More importantly in this article, the notion of “broadband” (the means of getting access to the Internet) is being framed as the end game. Broadband is not the end game.

Make no mistake: Broadband is NOT the same as the Internet. Broadband is a poorly defined speed, a pipe, the means by which we access the Internet. It’s a marketing term used by the telephone and cable companies to describe their paltry offerings, which have resulted in the United States being ranked 17th in the world (and falling). A significant problem with using “broadband” as our national goal is that the FCC has not defined or measured it, or assessed its distribution (PDF). Of course the telephone and cable companies know, but they aren’t telling. And they’re effectively in charge for now.

If I could pull the plug on this well-financed debacle, I would in a heartbeat. Instead of focusing on the means (the pipe used to get there), let’s focus on the real goal: access to the Internet.

I propose that instead of pursuing this losing battle, we start talking about a Global Internet Plan for America. Why?

  • We’re really trying to get access to the global Internet resources: everything that is available now and being created in the future. We want access to the global Internet. The Internet offers advanced information services and benefits to everyone, in many languages and many forms.
  • The United States of America has unique political and technological resources, so this Plan is uniquely designed for Americans. Americans care about each other. We want our nation recover to economically. We want the best for our kids. We want all benefits to be widely available, in rural as well as urban settings. We don’t want our families, friends, or ourselves to be denied or limited access to the benefits of the Internet for any reason.

How do we get there? The current “debate” needs to be reframed to show priority for citizen-customer concerns and experiences. As the debate is framed now, it allows incumbent service providers to divide and conquer the conversation, the possibilities for change, and our future. Here are a few new ways to talk about this global Internet plan for America.

Decoupling access from delivery: The global Internet represents significant economic development benefits in the form of more competitive choices, lower prices, and faster performance. However, our service providers are increasingly serving as gatekeepers, choosing what information and how (devices, speed, etc.) we can or can not access it. Americans will realize the greatest benefit only if we decouple the Internet goods and services from the delivery pipe (broadband). This is called structural separation. For the greatest amount of benefit, we should be allowed to choose for ourselves what information to access, on our schedules and according to our needs, using our choice of hardware devices and software.

Monopoly rents as private taxation: Since the telephone and cable companies are the only game in town (where there is Internet access), they have considerable persuasive abilities when it comes to raising rates.  Citing Kushnick’s Law: “A regulated company will always renege on promises to provide public benefits tomorrow in exchange for regulatory and financial benefits today.” For instance, we’ve already paid $300 billion dollars in approved phone rate increases for telephone company promises that have never been fulfilled. One way of looking at this is as a private tax that takes in ever-increasing amount of our income. How often have you heard of local Public Utilities Commissions denying rate hikes? That doesn’t happen very often!

Coverage is not competition: Broadband service over telephone lines (DSL) has physical distance limitations, so is not available to all homes or businesses. Broadband over cable lines (cable modem service) passes a majority of homes in the nation, and is sometimes the only choice for access. In these areas, the price of access is high. What this means is that there are parts of the nation which either do not have access to the Internet at all, or have effectively one choice for providers. A Brookings Working Paper from 2002, The United States Broadband Problem: Analysis and Policy Recommendations (PDF), states the problem accurately:

Thus the effect of current industry structure is to generate a stable duopoly in residential Internet services, with continued monopoly control in most other markets – by the ILECs in voice and business data services, and by the CATV industry in residential video. Neither industry would logically be interested in provoking highly dynamic competition in open-architecture, high speed, and/or symmetric broadband services to either businesses or homes. Hence the slow pace of improvement in broadband services is not surprising. Unfortunately, however, it damages the economic growth, social welfare, and national security of the United States, and indeed of the world.

This means that any claims of nationwide coverage are suspect. As mentioned above, actual coverage and subscriber/customer data is not shared with the government, so the FCC doesn’t know how bad this problem is. However, there is no reason that access to the benefits of the Internet should be denied to any of our nation’s citizens. Keeping the data secret does not serve in the nation’s best interest. I want an Internet plan that works for all Americans.

There are more issues that can be properly described: problems inherent in the current state of the industry, and solutions that support ubiquitous access to the global Internet by all Americans. This is a plan I want to see come to life. This is the plan that will bring benefits to the entire nation. I am not alone in calling for this plan.

I welcome your additions in the comments below. Thanks go to George Lakoff for perspective on reframing this issue.

Growing Pains in the Cloud

One of the latest buzzwords in technology is cloud computing. In this scenario, the Internet is considered to be “the cloud.” The basic idea, roughly stated, is that we no longer need to rely on our local computer hard drives for everything–including software applications and storage. Now we can just log into various Internet-based services, use their applications, and store our documents on their servers.

Many examples of cloud computing are common and in use every day. On a personal level, MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn help you manage your contacts and address book (friends, colleagues), and Flickr helps manage and display your photo collection. On a business level, Google Docs and Zoho offer a suite of tools for writing, accounting, and much, much more.

We all know that technology is not perfect. Combined with human interaction, we get a system that can be surprisingly fragile. Cloud computing is one example of this.

I have had the frustrating experience (many times) of using–and coming to depend on–GoogleDocs for group writing projects. I always found it frustrating when, without prior notice, Google would implement changes in the user interface that complicated our group work; or when Google Docs had a service hiccup and our group’s documents became unavailable for some time.

Similarly, others are documenting problems. I wrote about Digital Eviction (on Digital ID Coach) a couple of weeks ago citing Phil Wolff’s Data Portability article that’s timely and relevant to this post about having growing pains in cloud computing. Phil’s post offers six actions that might be appropriate to address the problems that cloud computing are likely to create. Briefly, those include:

  • Intervention with a back-up service
  • Prevent and educate on graceful exit strategy
  • Commit to adding appropriate language to contracts (EULAs and TOSs)
  • Insure your digital assets
  • Advocate for the little guy
  • Enforce with real laws and penalties

As we are increasingly dependent on cloud-based service providers, recognizing the vulnerability of these services makes it more important than ever to create back-ups of our work. One place might be on our local hard drives. I urge you to do it now.

Is Your ISP Evil?

MuniWireless has a post called Find out if your ISP is a bad ISP with Glasnost in which author Esme Vos asks if your ISP is “playing funny games” with your Internet connection. She urges inquiry:

Simply go to Glasnost (appropriate name as it refers to a period in the 1980s in the USSR when there was a bit more openness and transparency). Glasnost is but one weapon in your arsenal for finding out the TRUTH about your broadband connection and your ISP. It is a product of Measurement Lab, founded by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium, Google Inc. and academic researchers: “M-Lab was developed in 2008 after Vint Cerf and others at Google initiated conversations with network researchers to learn more about challenges to the effective study of broadband networks.”

Vos reported that her ISP came out clean. I can report (finally, after days of busy servers) that my ISP is doing well as of this post. However, all ISPs will not have such good reports.

As a matter of business ISPs will remind us that there are two sides to every story, in this case the service users and the service providers. To their credit, they will need to take steps to understand the user-side demand and manage their resources to provide the best services possible. I’d give them this credit if they didn’t “play funny games” in the process.