Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Yesterday I gave a presentation in the final session of the Cambridge-MIT Institute's symposium on Net Neutrality. I would love to write a detailed piece on the event, but for two complicating factors: 1) due to logistical problems, I only attended the final two sessions; and 2) the event occurred under the Chatham House Rule. General messages which I picked up from the two sessions I saw, and from talking to those who had been there throughout, were:

  • There is a startling dearth of information with which to assess in any comprehensive way what is actually happening on the internet as it is today, let alone how that changes in a non-NN world. Presenters cited some good work by Caida, CoCombine, and IIJ, but there seemed to be a consensus that we need much more - particularly for regulators to get greater insight into what they are trying, or perhaps not trying, to resolve.
  • Definition continues to be the most troublesome aspect, and some questioned if we could actually identify whether there is a problem, or just the prospects of a problem. Conversely, by the time a problem is generally acknowledged, it's often too late to resolve satisfactorily. Others questioned whether the issue will be amplified to serve individual political ambitions in Brussels, resulting in a pre-emptive over-reaction. I'd love to be more specific about all this, but rules are rules.
  • It seemed that there was a consensus that the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive is fraught with potential problems.

My talk (slides here, and Torrent version) centered around two themes. The first was that, one year on from the infamous "My Pipes" interview, the world is a lot more complicated. Whereas the MPAA probably once (mistakenly) wanted Bram Cohen's head on a pike, its members are now signing up for BitTorrent distribution, and there are other platforms which seek to use the protocol to empower independent content creators and established names alike. World of Warcraft uses BT for client updates, and woe betide any carrier which stands between a guild member and his virtual world. As I've discussed before, the BBC also employs Kontiki in services like this one, which it makes clear is funded by the TV license fee - I don't know how many people would feel strongly enough about it to kick up a fuss, but it seems to me that throttling such a service could be seen as depriving license payers of the full use and value of their license. Okay, that's probably a stretch, but it illustrates the point that protocols previously classified as "alien," "pernicious," or downright "evil" may now be supporting perfectly legal services which consumers and authors have paid for/invested in. Ham-fisted attempts at "traffic shaping" now risk angering not only consumers, but also media companies with big legal departments, so choose your enemies wisely. I attempted to make the same point around the mash-up culture, citing examples like AIM Pages, which is now up to 239 application modules, some of which are from "mortal enemies" in the web space, as well as Second Life, which I think could end up being a minefield for a "My Pipes" implementation.

My second point was that I think the entire debate has only come about as a result of the yawning gap between the pace of innovation in applications and the pace of deployment of true broadband. In other words, the disease is our approach to infrastructure, and the Net Neutrality debate is a symptom - I seemed to be the only person to delve into this aspect, though it's possible that someone did in an earlier session. While I stopped short of proposing any specific solutions, I did try to convey the idea that we need to seriously question whether the current model is capable of delivering true broadband, because there are some serious structural issues which seem to be inconsistent with the goal, which I listed as follows:

Incumbent telcos
–Vertically integrated business models
–Addicted to scarcity
–Risk averse
–Primary focus on capital markets/investors
–Poor track record in innovation
–Maximum investment horizon 3 – 5 years

This last issue, investment horizon and the audience likely to be interested, is a crucial one. I closed by predicting/proposing that there will soon be a re-examination of the infrastructure funding model, involving all or some of the following in some no doubt interesting combinations:

–Entrepreneurial capital, thinking outside the box (cf., Iliad)
–Property companies/REITs
–Specialist infrastructure funds
–Public/private partnerships
–Municipal/regional governments/development agencies (Amsterdam, Cataluña, Loma Linda CA, Seattle, Singapore, UTOPIA)
–Incumbent telcos, pending a change in DNA

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