For many years I covered the the Federal Communications Commission, specifically the years-long fight to get some sort of formal network neutrality regulation passed. Then I started digging into the so-called internet of things a half decade ago as my new passion and I thought my days of covering the FCC were over. But the two are still intertwined.
Three years later, I saw the agency pass rules that would prevent some of the bad behavior that ISPs had tried in the preceding years to kill competitive voice and video services. The network neutrality rules of 2015 stopped carriers from interfering with lawful traffic passing over their networks.
At the time this meant that Comcast couldn’t block BitTorrent traffic and small ISPs in Wisconsin couldn’t block Skype calls. Thanks to the 2015 rules, network neutrality also applied in some measure to wireless networks, which meant that AT&T blocking FaceTime was not cool, nor was Verizon making favorable deals with Skype.
Last week, while the U.S. was focused on Thanksgiving turkey, the current FCC chairman Ajit Pai declared that on Dec. 14 he would bring a repeal of the 2015 network neutrality laws to a vote. With three Republican commissioners, Pai’s plan would likely pass. In the days since, however, we’ve seen one Republican senatordefect from Pai’s camp, a concerted effort by tech firms to galvanize support for network neutrality and Comcast erase its commitment to avoid paid prioritization on its network.
So what’s the fear here? At a minimum, a company like Comcast could prioritize its own services over those from other providers. Darker scenarios involve Comcast charging companies money for fast-lane access to end consumers. From an IoT perspective, this means that Comcast could let packets from its security alarm and camera service go ahead of those of ADT’s or Nest’s.
But the bigger picture is about what we don’t know. It’s always hard in technology to anticipate what’s next. No one saw the Amazon Echo coming until it was here for a few months. Relatively few people were excited about Nokia’s smartphones before the iPhone and its capacitive touch screen arrived in 2007. And when I was testing the first 3G modems from Verizon by streaming internet radio on my laptop while driving in my car, I couldn’t see Waze or Uber coming.
Yet, what these services have in common is they rely on broadband networks that are threatened by the repeal of network neutrality rules. One reason the Nokia smartphones didn’t catch on in the U.S.? The carriers didn’t subsidize them on their networks. (They also didn’t have that touchscreen.) AT&T agreeing to support the iPhone was a big deal. It knew that it would use a lot of data, challenging and showcasing its network.
And when Apple introduced the App Store in 2008 it managed to do what carriers had so far screwed up for years. It finally made on-device apps and services accessible and consumable.
It did this by offering developers an easy way to get their ideas onto a platform with millions of consumers. It also allowed developers to make money in a way that didn’t require dealing with the carriers. With awesome content, Apple’s iPhone stood apart from the competition that rapidly copied its hardware.
Apple’s advantage was its hardware, but it was also the company’s approach to software that would run on its devices. Carriers wanted to control everything, and when they did they slowed innovation. Carriers offered app stores. They had a large, captive customer base. It didn’t help.
The point here is that the carriers had the tools to move beyond their role as the provider of the broadband pipe. But they consistently failed because they didn’t see — or didn’t want to see – what the mobile future needed. Instead of proprietary platforms and deals to get app developers to pay the carriers for space on the device (hello bloatware), people wanted innovation. While every now and then carriers might let someone on the platform that would provide an awesome game or program, that would be the exception rather than the rule.
The flatter playing field provided by the Apple App Store and Google’s Play Store, as well as the huge audience on those platforms, meant that there was a reason and a way to build something a little crazy to see if it worked. We’re neck deep in those crazy ideas today. Many of your favorite apps might never have existed under the old carrier-based app store regime.
What’s astonishing is that as carriers saw themselves falling behind they didn’t learn the lesson. They instead tried to build a new app store and even a failed digital payments system to compete. They did little to woo developers and even tried to block some apps on their network. At a time when wireless carriers had the hottest commodity in the world with mobile data, carriers didn’t focus on what they had, and instead tried to build a new industry in an area where they were ill-suited to compete.
Many operators believe they were stuck with a form of the innovator’s dilemma, where they couldn’t invest in the new without cannibalizing the old, but what they should have done is embrace their role as an essential infrastructure provider and double down on making data delivery as efficient as possible. It’s the same strategy Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook are pursuing with their computing infrastructure. And now Facebook is moving into telecommunications with various open source telecom projects.
So what does this have to do with IoT and network neutrality? Simply this. The ISPs have failed when it comes to innovation in the 21st century. Yes, they have excellent engineers and have put together complex worldwide networks. But when it comes to creating agile businesses that can adapt to the pace of technological change, they have failed. The default is always to try to control the pipe; to turn broadband into a pricey resource available to a few.
As we add more sensors to the world, we have the opportunity to pull in new data streams and use that data to create new applications and services. We don’t even know what those will look like. We’re at the point I was at in 2003 driving around listening to internet radio from my open laptop resting on my passenger seat.
If ISPs have their way, we won’t see the Wazes or the Dark Skys of the next era of technology advancement because the creators won’t build them.
I have two hopes here. One is that Pai’s efforts fail because Republicans in the House pull back from this issue (or Trump offers a scathing tweet in response to an angry Fox News host). The second is that even if Pai succeeds, the engineering talent and massive war chests at Facebook or Apple lead to new networks.
After all, optimization is the key to success at many web companies that measure and manage everything. If reaching their billions of users costs more, and they can find a way to cut those costs, they will get into last-mile networks. Already they are researching new technology such as microwave spectrum and smart antennas to deliver broadband. When a resource is abundant, people innovate on it. But when it is scarce, people innovate around it. Carriers would do well to remember that.
It’s a small hope, and we’ll miss out on plenty while we wait, but it’s the only hope we’ll have if Pai succeeds.