EOF - The Multiple Play

by Doc Searls

Telephony, our theme this month, used to be a standalone utility. You got it from the phone company. The same went for cable TV. You got that from the cable company. Both were service monopolies—utilities, essentially. If you wanted something fixed, you called your sole provider, just like you called the water, gas or electric company.

But, the Internet was different. The first ISPs piggybacked their Net connections over phone lines. They'd install banks of modems to call or rent a T1 or a T3 line from a telco or somebody with a “backbone” connection and sell hunks of bandwidth on those. Now much of that old intermediation is gone, and most of us see the Net as something we get from the phone or cable company.

As hot as the Internet is, and as important as it has become to nearly every activity you can name (business, medicine, education, science, culture and so on), the telcos and cablecos treat it as a third-banana service behind telephony and television. When they bundle all three together, they call it triple play. And the Internet comes third.

In one of our features this month (see page 42), Bob Frankston talks about moving entirely past games like these. But, what to do in the meantime if we do want to play? Here near Boston, I have my own triple play of carrier choices: Comcast, RCN and Verizon. Out on the poles, Comcast wiring is coax. RCN and Verizon both deploy fiber-optic cabling. Sounds like an ideal competitive environment, right? Well, not quite.

At my elbow is the latest mailer from Comcast, a cable company. It pitches “Digital Cable + Phone + Internet”. For the third item, it offers “Comcast High-Speed Internet with PowerBoost”. Bandwidth is “up to 12Mbps!” No mention of upstream speed.

The next two mailers are from RCN. The first came just before the Super Bowl. RCN, which brags that it has been “all fiber optic for over a decade”, just pitches cable TV with this one—$35 for 12 months. There's nothing about Internet at all. The second mailer pitches “10Mbps Blazing-Fast High-Speed Internet” and “100% Digital Cable TV”. Again, no upstream speed.

I don't use either one of them, though I checked both out when we started renting here last September. The main thing I care about is Internet connectivity, and for that, neither Comcast nor RCN competed with Verizon's fiber-optic FiOS. So Verizon got my business. From FiOS, I'm getting 20Mbps down and 5Mbps up. The best RCN could do on the upstream side (which mattered most to me) was 2Mbps. Comcast didn't even say what its upstream speed was. (I just checked again on-line, and it still doesn't.)

What's amazing to me is that Greater Boston—specifically in the areas served by Verizon with FiOS and RCN with its fiber cabling—is thick with people like Bob and myself, who care far more about Internet connectivity than about TV or landline telephone. We have lots of tech and creative folks around here, in addition to the thickest concentration of educational institutions in the country, if not the world. Couldn't these carriers bother to customize better Internet offerings for a Net-savvy (and -hungry) local population?

I guess they don't have to. Even with three competitors, there seems to be enough business to go around. They aren't ready to abandon the scaled efficiencies of offering the same thing to everybody, across the whole country. And, as Bob points out, the flywheels of Business As Usual at telcos still spin on momentum imparted by railroads in the Victorian Age.

But, unlike Bob, I have some hope for them. The time will come when the workarounds that Bob's talking about—especially from folks such as Linux Journal readers—will have the carriers looking for ways to make money other than by tiered pricing for usage alone.

Is low-latency to servers an advantage? One can imagine applications where it would be. Well, these incumbent carriers not only have home connections, but also local real-estate holdings. They could provide Akamai-like low-latency Web services—or partner with the likes of Akamai to provide them. They could partner with Amazon's S3 and EC2 (both Linux-based) to offer local storage and compute back end.

Offsite backup is going to be a huge necessity and, therefore, a cause for business offerings. Think about what will happen as soon as ordinary folks start demanding, shooting and cooperatively editing truly high-definition video. Storage, mirroring and the rest of it will all be helpful, if not required.

Of course, the amount of business to be had here will increase with the openness of the Net itself. Today's crippled and asymmetrical throughput, based on the one-way model of television viewing, is a bug that needs to be squashed. So does the practice of blocking port 80 and otherwise preventing or discouraging Web servers at homes and businesses. When that happens, every customer, every user, becomes a potential partner. By necessity.

There is no limit to how many multiples of the current triple play will be made possible by a wide-open and free Internet. Here's hoping the carriers see that before they die under the rubble of their own fallen silos.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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