I've been trying to avoid writing about the Internet as such. With as "At the Edge” I'm looking at larger issues but can't escape writing more directly about the Internet.
It seems as if everyone wants a say in Internet policy without distinguishing between technical and social issues. Today the term "The Internet" or, for many simply "Internet" is more of brand than a term for a specific technology and its implications. It has become too easy to talk about the Internet in lieu of understanding. We also see the converse — a failure to recognize "Internet" issues.
Obviously I need to be more specific about what I mean by "Internet Issues". I prefer to use the word "connectivity” to be able to talk about the transport separately of bits as distinct from the meaning of the bits. The meaning is defined by the users at the edges and the transport is just a commodity.
The confusion is evident when The New York Times had three stories on the same page that were all really "connectivity stories" but failed to recognize the common theme:
The broadcast, cable, cellular and telephone industries are now all the same. They are all moving towards using the same Internet protocols the rest of us use. The differentiations are accidental and temporary. The only differences are in how they connect to their customer. For wired connections it doesn't really matter if they use fiber or copper. You can get the same servers on either though, for now, copper is not normally used for television though that was the original purpose of DSL. Cellular companies do deploy towers but they are connected using the same wired infrastructure. The TV broadcast industry is becoming irrelevant because their one-way delivery system cannot provide effective connectivity.
The commoditization of the transport is making it increasingly difficult to make money just because you own the pipe. The cable industries have a long history of owning the content and demanding a share in companies whose signals they deign to carry. As gatekeepers they have the ability to command a high fee for passage. The problem is that the scarcity is going away and with the shift to narrowcasting (as in Video on Demand) there is no scarcity. Instead they must own the content themselves if they are to retain any advantage.
The Comcast/Disney issue is portrayed as a media consolidation and convergence but that doesn't make sense. With transport becoming increasingly abundant it is easier for new players to enter the market and we should see increasing divergence once millions of people can experiment with new ideas. By framing it as convergence we are told to accept increasing limitation on our choices rather than recognizing the flagrant disregard for anti-trust. The FCC thus plays the role of shielding its clients from the scrutiny of the FTC (Federal Trade Commission).
The cellular companies have a similar dilemma but instead of owning "media" companies, they try to create services like picture phones while trying to prevent their users from doing it themselves. But this strategy is doomed. It's reminiscent of ISDN which was the digital upgrade for standard telephony but failed because the Telcos kept tight control in order to retain the value for themselves. The new services are aimed at increasing revenues which requires denying the user the ability to create new services at the edges. Consolidation offers only temporary respite from the inevitable loss of control as it becomes increasingly difficult to channel traffic into billable channels when all transports coalesce into a commons.
The February 23, 2004 story, Palm's Marriage of Convenience to Handspring Shows Promise. With sales of standalone PDAs declining Palm finds that its future is in the hands of the cellular providers. They can't just make the best product for consumers and take advantage of connectivity — they must instead make a product that maximizes the carriers' revenues. I own a Samsung and I can't upgrade to the latest software without getting the approval of all the parties in the bucket brigade — Microsoft(Samsung(Verizon. The term comes from the days when firefighters had to pass buckets of water hand to hand rather than just using a hose. Everyone in the chain has veto power.
All of these stories are about attempts to prevent users (that is, all of us) from getting access to connectivity and from being able to add value. That's a very big story but as long as the reporting is so clueless and focused on consequences rather than what is really going on it will be hard for us to make informed decisions.
We find this same confusion when writing about the Internet itself as the technical and social issues become hopelessly confused. It seems as if the focus is on governance and rules. The Internet is supposed to be a medium for innovation — just connect services at the end points and not worry about the middle. Today we have to run through a gauntlet of firewalls, NATs (network address translators), blocked ports and other impediments. Even if you get through you have to trust the transport because encryption is not the norm. The focus on the wireless links is typical — focusing on those links out of context just adds complexity which actually reduces the effective security.
Even if you do succeed you still have to face up to the lack of stability. The linkages that hold the net together aren't stable. The domain names are only leased and not owned and worse, they get reused and change meaning. In order to scale the routing infrastructure the IP address must be used as a routing key while we still try to keep some of them fixed (or static) but very few addresses can be static over the long term.
I've decided that my own intermediate fixes, removing the semantics from the DNS and increasing the size of the IP address with IPV6 aren't enough. Instead we must take control from the edges as the P2P community is already doing. Instead of building on top of the current Internet we can define connectivity from the edges. Very briefly, the key is to use self-generated end point identifiers that double as cryptographic keys and treat the Internet as routing service rather than a layer. This returns control to the edge — including the definition of where the edge is. In the current Internet the edge is typically a computer and not an application. In a single paragraph I can do little more than hint at an approach and will explain the concepts in more detail in a future essay.
Just as we as create telephony and television from the edges by building upon connectivity we can do so for the Internet services themselves. Rather than building directly upon basic Internet protocols we can and must build upon connectivity and thus avoid dependence upon the IP address and other constructs that limit to early design decisions and work-arounds.
It's about connectivity. Not media consolidation, not bigger and bigger companies with thinner and thinner margins, not about more and more complicated technofixes as we try to keep the Internet going, not about governing it into proper behavior.
During World War II cargo planes would drop supplies on Pacific Islands for later retrieve. Islanders without an understanding of technology joined cargo cults in hopes of petitioning their gods for more.
Today we believe in the Internet without really understanding it but the price of ignorance is very high. We accept policies that minimize the value of connectivity by allowing the incumbent companies to constrain their use. We treat the Internet as if it were a single infrastructure just like the classic phone network and thus we get more and more patches rather than the a source of opportunities that allowed the simple creation of services like email and the Web at the edges. The simplifying assumptions that made that easy haven't scaled but that's not obvious since we manage to keep those services working and are simply unaware of the new opportunities that we frustrate.
As much as I try to explain this it has little weight unless others understand why they should care. While much of the press is focused on entertainment there is still a portion that is dedicated to inform. That's why I chose the New York Times as an example. I understand the difficulty of asking reporters used to treating business and government policies as a self-referential story to recognize that they need to understand fundamental concepts. That's not an excuse, just an explanation. The price of ignorance is simply too high.
Connectivity stories are at center stage and will become more and more common as we face a transition that is going to be unnecessarily difficult as governments (around the world) attempt to cling to their misunderstandings. Effective reporting can help reduce this dislocation by helping us understand and prepare for the inevitable.
The opportunities are very exciting — too bad all the reporting is so mired in the past.
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