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Communications Networks

Opening Networks Up

kw_excited I was delighted to see that Kevin Werbach has been picked to co-lead the FCC Review for the Obama transition project.  I cannot think of a better person for the job.  I met Kevin sometime back in 2001 when he first came to Philadelphia.  Kevin had been editing Release 1.0 and had taken a faculty position at the Wharton School.

At that time I was supporting Verizon for one of the Bell Labs legacy companies.  I was also advising the Democratic side of the Senate.  At that time, the Senate couldn’t figure out why the service providers were not taking advantage of tax incentives to build out fiber to the home.  My recommendation at the time was that they shift the incentives away from running fiber all the way to the home, rather simply to bring it to the neighborhood.  The fact is that policy and incentives can only influence corporate behavior so far.  There still needs to be a sound fundamental strategy and business case.

At that time, Kevin was focused on the disruptive potential of Voice over IP (VoIP) technology to level the playing field and drive new waves of innovation.  At that time, I was working on a project to provide Verizon with a large scale centralized softswitch so that they could offer VoIP to their customers.  At that time, there were quite a few religious battles over whether intelligence belonged in the core of network or at the edge.  The answer has turned out to be “it depends” and “both”.

Edge devices have become smarter and more complicated, which in turn has driven the need for networks to become much smarter too.  Many functions, such as security, make more sense in the core than at every single end point on a network.  We also continue to put more intelligent routing capabilities like MPLS into the core network, which in turn makes it possible for more power and control to be out at the edge.

Recently, I have been working on IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) network design.  IMS is, in essence, a very complex network architecture that enables  networks do some very simple sounding things.  IMS will allow end users to pick and choose the applications that they want, independently of the network that they are on.  You could pick which voicemail that you want for both your desk phone and cell phone.  You could choose a speech to text engine that you want to work across all of your communications.

My hope is that powerful network designs like IMS will enable the collaborative environment that we will need to drive the next wave of innovation.  We need small agile companies that are willing to take risks and create innovative new products.  We also need well managed companies that can be trusted to execute capital intensive network build-outs that take decades and cost billions of dollars.  These companies need to be methodical and extremely efficient.  We need both these types of companies to play nice together.

There is a great opportunity in front of us, to unleash a new round of productivity increases.  Success, however, will not be achieved by picking one side at the other’s expense.  Our technology policy will need to be as intelligent as the networks themselves.  We will need to recognize and reward the type of behavior that we want from our service providers, such as efficient use of capital, reliability, predictability, while at the same time laying down clear rules for how we want their networks to behave in order to create a fair playing field.  The disruptive innovators also have to take on some risk as well.  I don’t think that they should expect free communications services any more than they should expect free electricity.  A business model that relies on getting an essential production component for free is not sustainable in the long run.

Kevin is the right guy to help create this kind of collaborative environment.  He is passionate about the need to drive innovation and improve personal productivity.  He has also been a relentless advocate for net-neutrality.  He has taken companies to task for peer to peer blocking, but has also been quick to recognize when big business gets it right, like with Apple’s App Store and Verizon’s Open Development Initiative, both of which are focused on creating collaborative eco-systems to drive innovation.  He also works really hard.

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