WSJ tells it like it is

There’s a great lead article in the Wall Street Journal this morning, explaining how cell phone manufacturers and cellular service providers have opposing interests concerning phone features and how they are delivered.

The article pitches the fight as one over which of these two will end up controlling the data services on the phone. The interests of consumers would be best served by neither of these outcomes. The essence of the Internet is its openness. Nobody controls the services. Ideally, the mobile model of Internet access will follow the wireline model, where neither the device manufacturer nor the Internet access provider exerts any control over the content of the network data packets.

Brough Turner on Network Neutrality

The estimable Brough Turner has written at length on the topic of Net Neutrality.

The first thing to read on this topic is his blog entry “Why there’s no Internet QoS and likely never will be”. In this article he makes the point that the only place where QoS measures make a difference is in the access link, and that the best way to ensure access link QoS is by putting a traffic shaping device behind your broadband modem. So no need for anything from your ISP beyond what you already expect, namely bandwidth and uptime.

In this article, Brough advocates a long view, focusing on increasing last-mile bandwidth, pointing out the danger of unintended consequences of regulation. He makes the point that fiber is not a natural monopoly, in the sense that there is adequate revenue per square mile in moderately densely populated cities to sustain multiple runs of fiber to each home. He identifies rights of way restrictions as the real barrier to last mile competition. In a similar spirit, he advocates opening up spectrum for license-exempt operation for last mile access. This article has similar arguments.

In this later article, Brough backs off a little to what seems to me to be a better position, namely regulating dark fiber, and fostering competition above it.

By 2007, Brough had nailed his colors to the mast. In this review of Susan Crawford’s paper, “The Internet and the Project of Communications Law,” he says:

I’d really like to see a national strategy to get as much of the population on dark fiber as possible.

And just a couple of months ago, he proposed a way to do it:

…unfettered municipal experimentation by any of the 22,000 municipalities in the US and/or interested community groups.

So there you have it. A relatively simple, seemingly doable solution to Net Neutrality, implementable by the grass roots, thought through by a smart guy who knows the subject inside and out.

I’m aboard!

Cisco buys WebEx, loses faith

Cisco has two main customer constituencies: network service providers and business IT departments. One of WebEx’s crown jewels is its MediaTone network. This is a global private network, with dedicated fiberoptic links and multiple peering points to the Internet. If Cisco doesn’t sell this off, they will be competing with their customers in one of their primary markets. Unlikely to fly, though Cisco sometimes doesn’t seem to mind treading on toes.

This leaves the remainder of WebEx, the application (SaaS) side. It’s a natural complement to two of Cisco’s current business lines, filling a gap between their Unified Communications Manager (VoIP PBX) products and their high-end telepresence offerings.

As Cisco gets into more and more of the software services that run over IP networks, they end up competing more and more with Microsoft among others, and in an odd way for an Internet company.

Cisco rode the Internet Protocol to the stars. An article of faith amongst the IP cognoscenti is that the network must be stupid. This means that we conceive of the Internet as an amorphous connectivity cloud with computers on its periphery. Some of them are clients and some of them are servers. The Internet doesn’t care which is which. This is very powerful, because anybody with an IP address can set up a web site (a.k.a network service). This is anathema to the traditional network service providers who want to provide value (get revenue) in the network beyond mere connectivity. The Internet world (like Google) and the PC world (like Microsoft and Intel) love the stupid network model because it lets them innovate. The owners of the wires hate it because it forces them into the role of mere connectivity providers, since they are incapable of innovation at the service level.

But Cisco’s bread and butter is network equipment. Cisco doesn’t sell servers. So every service that migrates from the stupid network model to the intelligent network model increases Cisco’s potential market. Cisco hasn’t yet apostatized, but these actions are building gravitation in that direction. They have already ported their IP PBX to IOS, and they are allegedly even warming up to IMS!

Forbes article on the acquisition.
CNET interview with WebEx CEO Subrah Iyar.

Network neutrality: free market vs. regulation

Network neutrality is a contentious topic, particularly because billions of dollars of revenue hinge on the way it pans out. Because of these high stakes, partisans are motivated to use all the tools of rhetoric to argue for their positions. One way that the debate is commonly misrepresented is as one between regulation and the free market. It is actually a debate between more or less regulation. A free market is one where competition leads to abundant choice, and where consumers have the option to select one service over another. A monopoly is one where there is no choice, and consumers must take or leave what they are offered. Internet access is not a monopoly, but it is close, because of the limited number of suppliers in any particular location. The supposed purpose of network neutrality regulation is to preserve the current vibrant free market of internet services (services provided via the internet, as opposed to internet access service.)

There are several arguments against network neutrality. One is that it is impossible to enforce, that the Internet access providers will subtly strangle third party services by intentional incompetency if the regulators try to force them to stay open. This seems to be one of the ways that the CLECs were held off until the demise of UNE-P. A second one is that there is no need for regulation because there is no threat to third party services. This argument points out that the commercial Internet has been going strong for over a decade, so why fiddle with it when it is working so well? The rebuttal to this argument is that Ed Whitacre, CEO of AT&T has famously said that they intend to double charge providers of services over the network like Google: once for their own internet access like now, and a second time for their customer’s network access, additional to the one that customers are already paying for their own internet access. If the access providers succeed in this it will become much harder for small companies to offer new services on the Internet.

Another anti-network neutrality regulation argument is that network neutrality is good, that we have it now, and that any Internet Access Provider that tries to mess with it will get savaged by customer opinion and lose customers to competitors who keep their network open. This argument assumes that there is a free market in Internet access, and that a move by the telcos to double-charge service providers will not be immediately echoed by the MSOs. Or in a slightly modified version, it assumes that if the telcos and MSOs jump on this together, public outcry will force immediate regulatory reversal, so why try to fix something that ain’t broke yet?

Putting on the other hat, the access network operators have poured and continue to pour billions of dollars a year into upgrading their networks. They certainly deserve a fair return on their investments. The problem is that competition is so vigorous that neither the telcos nor the MSOs can afford to raise their rates to pay for all this build-out. But service providers (Google) have cash coming out of their ears, and they would happily share some of it in exchange for guaranteed priority of their content on congested networks.

OK, let’s take that hat off again. While Google does indeed have money coming out of its ears, and probably could afford to send some of it the way of the access providers, what about service providers with no spare cash, in other words, startups? The Internet has been a hothouse of innovation because of its spectacularly low barriers to entry. It costs virtually nothing to set up a new Internet service. Loss of network neutrality would shut down this innovation, because the telcos and MSOs would get to decide which of these services survived. Their track record at this stinks. If they had an inkling how to do it there would be no Google, UTube, MySpace or eBay, because the telcos would have put services like this into place 20 years ago. But they didn’t. Large companies are structurally incapable of this kind of radical innovation, while a vibrant free market does it naturally. This is because evolution by natural selection is a far more potent force than executive edict, and “let a thousand flowers bloom” is a vastly more fertile approach than “let’s not do anything risky.” Looked at this way, the telcos’ presentation of tiered service as “free market” rings hollow.