Past Entry of Zippy's Telecom Blog


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September 24, 2009

Crossroads and Turning Points

Welcome to the premiere of my new blog on the telecom industry! Those reading this who work in the telecommunications business have probably talked to me at least once over the years. As the story goes, I was IT director for one of New York’s top law firms in 1994 when Harry Newton, author of Newton’s Telecom Dictionary, lured me into the magazine and tradeshow business, specifically the kind that promotes innovative telecom products and services.

In the years since then, Yours Truly has experienced quite a roller coaster ride. Harry sold his company for $130 million in 1997, and I went on to help start up a number of magazines—CMP's Communications Convergence, Jeff Pulver’s VON, TMC’s Unified Communications and NGN (Next Generation Networks), etc.—and along the way I had to navigate through the minefield of two treacherous economic busts. Today I stand (or sit) before you, blogging away in concert with the rest of my colleagues.

Computer telephony, “the application of computer intelligence to telephony,” was just gathering steam when I entered the field in 1994. Within a few years it evolved and gave rise to Voice-over-IP, which has lost much of its “gee whiz” status and has now pretty much become a mainstream phenomenon, thanks to its continuing integration into the world's infrastructure and the relentless advertising by companies such as Jeff Pulver’s Vonage. Pulver himself became famous by being the mouthpiece for various liberal political telecom interests, and he and his movement influenced both a then-friendly FCC (under then-Chairman Michael Powell) and the U.S. Congress.

This movement’s principal triumph has been the serious promotion of “network neutrality,” also known as “net neutrality” or “Internet neutrality”. A truly neutral broadband network has few if any restrictions as to what can be connected to it or how it can be used, as long as a particular communications device or service does not interfere with the communication streams of other devices and services. Broadband communications in this regard is thus equated with such fundamental liberties as free speech.

A casual observer might conclude that the only way to fully achieve such a utopian vision would be to nationalize the networks, but that idea certainly would not sit well with either the U.S. public (some demographic segments equating socialism with various conflicting negative ideas such as fascism, Bolshevik-Leninism, and all-around totalitarianism) or the monopolistic telecommunications service providers. It is believed that the telcos want to impose tiered service models to create artificial bandwidth “scarcity,” discourage competition by using deep packet inspection to ferret-out “parasitic” free telephony services (e.g. Skype) as well as gaming and peer-to-peer information transfers, and compel their customers to subscribe to inferior, overpriced proprietary services and/or equipment. Fortunately, these forces are counterbalanced by a growing coterie of net neutrality proponents and even, ironically, a few cable companies (one of the few sources of genuine large-scale innovation in the U.S.), and hardware manufacturers.

Although researchers and academics were discussing and formulating possible net neutrality rules at the beginning of the century (such as Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu, who wrote an interesting paper in 2003), Jeff Pulver has been for many years the most-recognized figure in this area. Perhaps his greatest achievement was authorship of "the Pulver Order" in 2004, the first FCC ruling concerning Internet Protocol (IP) communications. The simple revelation behind the order is that computer-to-computer VoIP is not a telecommunications service. He’s also known for his pet term, “purple minutes” which he used to describe value-added IP communications, vaguely the equivalent of what used to be called enhanced services in the circuit-switched world.

Pulver then focused his efforts on IP Video and IPTV, then became entranced with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, holding many of his famous “breakfasts” at various dining establishments around the world. His 140 Character Conferences held at various locales worldwide have put an analytical spotlight on Twitter, and his latest interest appears to be High Definition (HD) audio codecs that will elevate the quality of packetized communications, breaking the diminutive sampling barrier imposed resulting from the restrictions laid down by the circuit-switch-era G.711 standard.

As a result of all this activity, Jeff seems to have spread himself around quite a bit lately with his various conferences, and some people speculate if Jeff will go back to focus more on net neutrality or whether a “new” Jeff Pulver-like figure will emerge. Certainly there are major entities such as Save the Internet ( but it’s equally certain that there’s no one as colorful or popular as Jeff. No one can quite stand as a figurehead or embody the movement as he can.

This talk may reveal itself to be a trifle Chicken Little in nature, since just as many people can point to the fact that the Bush administration is long gone, and the Obama administration is predisposed to supporting net neutrality as evidenced by his nomination of Julius Genachowski to head the FCC (a fellow who is admired by net neutrality proponents). It’s also evidenced by Obama’s his own statement in May 2009 that the government was going to start treating the nation's digital infrastructure, broadband networks and computers as strategic national assets that should be "open and free"

Indeed, on September 21, FCC Chairman Genachowski gave a rather extraordinary, perhaps historic, speech at the Brookings Institution, in which he announced that the FCC would act like a “smart cop on the beat” to preserve net neutrality and that, “If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late.”

Genachowski is augmenting the four principles of open Internet issued by the FCC back in 2005 in its Broadband Policy Statement (aka Internet Policy Statement).

The four principles are meant by the FCC "to encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to:"

• Access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
• Run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
• Connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
• Competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

To sum up: "any lawful content, any lawful application, any lawful device, any provider".

Gernachowski is now adding two very important principles to the mix:

• Full transparency of network operations by carriers so they are open to public scrutiny.
• Disallow traffic discrimination of applications and users on telco, wireless and cable Internet networks.

Obama himself then later chimed in, with the now much-quoted passage….

One key to strengthening education, entrepreneurship, and innovation in communities like Troy is to harness the full power of the internet. That means faster and more widely available broadband– as well as rules to ensure that we preserve the fairness and openness that led to the flourishing of the internet in the first place. Today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is announcing a set of principles to preserve an open internet in which all Americans can participate and benefit. I am pleased that he is taking this step. It is an important reminder that the role of government is to provide investment that spurs innovation and common-sense ground rules to ensure that there is a level playing field for all comers who seek to contribute their innovations.

Reading between the lines, there is more to net neutrality’s repercussions than simply economics and entrepreneurial opportunities. The sheer mania and integration of advanced communications (e.g. Blackberries, iPhones) and social networks such as Twitter into our daily lifestyle is elevating net neutrality in status. If this were 1789, James Madison would include it in the Bill of Rights. (Coincidentally, InfoWorld's Paul Venezia thinks it's time for a Technology Bill of Rights.) Communications technology is now officially part of the very fabric of society, an extension of our consciousness. It has become more an artifact of cultural anthropology than just something in the form of a trendy gizmo you give to friends on their birthday. It has become as necessary as the air we breathe and the water we drink.

It's about time!

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