Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Internet is Not Triple Play

Five years ago, when I first started focusing on the Internet, I attended a small meeting at the Harvard Berkman Center that was given by the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. I was dumbstruck by the irrationality of what he was saying. And the FCC – which acronym I had previously glossed over with little understanding or interest – became an arm of government that I realized I should care about.

The irrational ideas, so curious and intriguing and yes, dumb founding, to my outsider and newcomer self was that the FCC had special rules for telephone, and special rules for TV, and special rules for data, as if they weren’t all the same thing! Didn’t everyone know that it was all just 1s and 0s? totally interchangeable and free flowing over both the wired and wireless world? That it didn’t make sense to think of telephone as something different from Voice Over IP?

And then of course, I learned that I was the dumb one. The FCC’s structure stemmed from the long history of the evolution of the telephone over the 20th century, which had a lot to do with what was learned from dealing with railroads over the 19th century.

The result is a bureaucracy and regulatory structure that just doesn’t make any sense for the underlying technical reality, but has structured vast ecosytems of companies built to respond to the old reality, and little inclined to change business models and give up existing profit streams (a problem in the energy and transportation sectors too).

I recently signed onto a FCC comment written by Seth Johnson that enunciates the difference between the services and the Internet. The many signers include Steve Wozniak, Clay Shirky, David Isenberg, David Weinberger, and David Reed.

While the FCC letter reads pretty technically, David Reed wrote a beautiful essay that explains in terms that everyone can understand, the distinction between the internet and the services.

To give you a taste:

..the Internet was created to solve a very specific design challenge – creating a way to allow all computer-mediated communication to interoperate in any way that made sense, no matter what type of computer or what medium of communications (even homing pigeons have been discussed as potential transport media). The Open Internet was designed as the one communications framework to rule them all.

However, the FCC historically organizes itself around “services”, which are tightly bound to particular technologies. Satellite systems are not “radio” and telephony over radio is not the same service as telephony over wires.

…The Internet really is “one ring to rule them all” – a framework unto itself, one that cannot be measured against its “wirelessness” or its “terrestriality”...It was carefully organized to incorporate innovations in transport of information, along with innovations in uses of such transport…What would happen if the FCC were to begin to recognize that all communications are to a large extent interchangeable?

What would happen if the FCC recognized the technical and practical reality? Go read David’s piece and become informed in a dramatically faster and shorter period of time than it took me.

The Internet does not equal Triple Play.

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