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Reframing the Infrastructure Debate

Doc Searls

Fast and reliable infrastructure of any kind is good for business. That it's debatable for the Internet shows we still don't understand what the Internet is — or how, compared to what it costs to build and maintain other forms of infrastructure, it's damned cheap, with economic and social leverage in the extreme.

Here's a thought exercise… Imagine no Internet: no data on phones, no ethernet or wi-fi connections at home — or anywhere. No email, no Google, no Facebook, no Amazon, no Skype.

That's what we would have if designing the Internet had been left up to phone and cable companies, and not to geeks whose names most people don't know. What those geeks came up with was something no business or government would ever contemplate: a base infrastructure of protocols that nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve. For all three of those reasons the Internet supports positive economic externalities beyond calculation.

The only reason we have the carriers in the Net's picture is that we needed their wires. They got into the Internet service business only because demand for Internet access was huge, and they couldn't avoid it. Yet, because we still rely on their wires, and we get billed for their services every month, we think and talk inside their conceptual boxes.

Remember that the telco and cableco business models are based on routing everything through billable checkpoints. Is this what we want for the rest of the Net's future?

We have to remember that the Internet isn't just a service. It's the platform for everything we connect. And the number of things we will connect over the next few years will rise to the trillions.

To understand how the Internet ought to grow, try this: cities are networks, and networks are cities. Every business, every person, every government agency and employee, every institution, is a node in a network whose value increases as a high multiple of all the opportunities there are for those nodes to connect — and to do anything. This is why every city should care about pure connectivity, and not just about billable phone and cable company services.

We should be building a network infrastructure that is as neutral to purpose as water, electricity, roads and sewage treatment — and that anybody, including ordinary citizens, can improve. We can't do that if we're wearing blinders supplied by AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon.

† I came to the realization that networks are cities, and vice versa, via Geoffrey West — first in Jonah Lehrer's "A Physicist Solves The City," in the New York Times, and then in West's TED talk, "The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations." West is the physicist in Lehrer's piece. Both are highly recommended.

By Doc Searls, Author

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Vinton Cerf, Co-designer of the TCP/IP Protocols & the Architecture of the Internet

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