What is strange about the telecom industry?

The FCC has unanimously voted to allow AT&T to conduct trials to turn off the phone network. It must be puzzling, at least to those who are unfamiliar with telecom industry inner workings. In normal markets, you hardly ever have such debates. For instance, there is no public debate as to how jet engines or future light bulbs are to be designed — even though everyone uses them. GE and Rolls-Royce introduced major enhancements without most people even noticing them. New light bulbs pack major innovations and plug into the old sockets, without any accompanying brouhaha. What is different with telecom?

The short answer is the Internet. Because the Internet has become everyone’s everyday tool, the dysfunctional behaviors in the telecom industry have become a matter of public debate. Anyone who uses Facebook or Twitter seems to believe that they have a say in the way the networks are to be designed.

For the long answer, you have to go back into history. Years of litigation resulted in the divestiture (break-up) of the AT&T in 1984. Bell Labs [2, 3] was the final authority on networks at that time, when, the Internet was in its infancy. The predominant network being the telecom (phone) network. One side effect of the divestiture was the dissipation of the technology know-how and knowledge, accumulated over a century, in the Bell Labs. The reconstructed Bell Labs is regaining its moorings only now. While the Bell Labs was in decline, the Internet as its protagonists were rising in prominence, culminating in the Dot-com bubble.

This is critical because the technologies, vocabulary, and principles underlying the telecom networks and the Internet are as alien as the German and French languages, even though the telecom networks and the Internet are an inseparable mesh.

The concurrent decline of the telecom stakeholders and ascent of the Internet stakeholders resulted in the neglect of telecom infrastructure and the underlying products. In fact, the primary suppliers (Nortel and Lucent) for the North American telecom networks are no longer viable business entities — Nortel is no more, and Lucent merged with Alcatel. The net result is cost of operating the telecom networks has been increasing, while the number of customers using voice components of the telecom networks have been declining. AT&T, therefore, wants to replace the voice telecom network with the Internet.

But the problem is that the Internet is not an exact replacement for the telecom networks for voice services. The best example is the 911 emergency service. The result is the convoluted public debate we are witnessing.

Texting has been suggested as replacement for the 911 service. However, this is not a good substitute. Dialing 3-digits — 9, 1, 1 — and speaking on the phone are simple to perform. But texting is not that simple — among the reasons are lack of uniformity of operation among devices, and the option for alphanumeric data.

A better solution is a mandatory “Alert Button” on all messaging devices, including phones, smartphones, tablets, dashboards, remote controllers, radio/TV receivers, wearables, keyboards, game consoles, door openers, and connected devices. The Alert Button could internally send text messages. In addition, with Alert Button, implementing different types of Alerts, in conjunction with GPS, will be trivial. Different types of Alerts, such as medical, fire, disasters, rescue, roadside assistance, burglary/intruder, equipment failure, threshold alarms, diagnostics, operating parameters, and other types could be easily implemented. This has the potential to create market for a whole new class of Alert devices and services, similar to the pagers used in the past.

Another issue missing in the debate is “transparency.” What are the goals of the trials? What are the objectives? How the results of the trials will be evaluated? And how the decisions will be made?

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Net neutrality: issues and solution

As expected, FCC’s Net Neutrality rules have been struck down by the court. The reason is FCC’s position is self-contradictory.

2002 FCC rule classified broadband/Internet as an information service, and outside the purview of FCC regulations. But 2010 FCC Net Neutrality ruling, placed conditions on the Internet service providers. Verizon’s challenge brought out this contradiction, and the court invalidated FCC’s 2010 Net Neutrality rules.

What is the way forward? The solution is not restoring Net Neutrality, as some have suggested.

Net Neutrality is a legal construct imposed on how networks are to be designed. Legal principles have no place in the design of networks, or for that matter, in the design of any technology products. But legal rules may be applied in the manner in which the technology systems are operated, or used.

Designing network systems involve making tradeoffs for efficient resource allocation, functionality and preventing deadlocks. This inherently involves treating different sets of bits differently. Hence, prudent engineering practices cannot be reconciled with the legal principles embodied in the Net Neutrality.

However, imposing telephone-centric common carrier regulations are also not appropriate for future networks, if it is to evolve to its full potential. The reason is that the phone-centric regulations were a compromise: In exchange for a government sanctioned monopoly [2, 3], AT&T agreed to be regulated as a utility. Network industry is no longer a monopoly, but has many entrenched competitors. And one of the critical issues is limiting market power abuses.

One issue, probably the most important, absent from the extensive discussions is the technology constraints involved. One critical factor for the current impasse is the lingering aftereffect of the dot-com bubble. The dot-com bubble created and reinforced the idea that all future networks are to be IP (Internet Protocol) based – “All-IP.” However, there is no technology rationale for this conclusion.

There are four primary data types: voice, data, video, and connected devices. Each has its own unique characteristics and requirements. Developments in digital technology enable transmission of all these data types over packets (Internet.) That does not mean that the optimum network for these data needs is the Internet.

The situation is similar to transportation. It is feasible to build flying cars that also operate in water. But nobody argues that flying cars should be the universal transportation solution.  We have car, bus, train, boat, ship, plane, spacecraft, etc.  Each of these are designed for different transportation needs and requirements.

If we design networks in a similar manner — design different networks optimized for different services targeted for different data types — the issues related to the Net Neutrality will get simplified, allowing simpler resolution. However, such an approach will provide only limited, if any, opportunities for political drama.

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