After thoughts on Isenberg's Stupid Networks
[NB: I'm back after a (believe me) well deserved three day weekend vacation, and a day lost to some strange behavior by OS X that also munched up one post before it upstreamed from Radio. System now apparently stable again, so here's a redo on that last conference story...]
I've known David Isenberg since before he bolted from AT&T Labs, and agree with most of his Stupid Networks thesis. We also share views on some of the amazing miscalculations recently emerging from the FCC. Having said as much, though, I'm going to take him to task for a few points in his ETech talk that could be better thought through for business outcomes.
Part of the pitch is now built around logic by Roxane Googin who apparently had some prescience regarding the telcom and market implosion. It is certainly the case as both propose that you can't sustain a carrier business model that includes capitalizing switching equipment on 20 to 30 year schedules backed by debt. At least not in any world that persists in innovating around you. All you can do is prop up a polite financial fiction that diverges further from reality each day.
It's going it too far, however, to say that "any system that is totally generic has no barrier to competitive entry. You can't differentiate yourself." Someone had better call up UOL and Earthlink with the bad news so they can get on with folding their tents. Obviously there are other ways to play the game. Even a rather basic treatise on positioning will suggest that perhaps customer service (what a thought!) and image branding might be options. Taking a look at those two ISPs might suggest such a thing could be happening. If we can get along with the inevitable writedowns, rather than defending the indefensible through regulatory backfires, other telcom sectors might manage as well.
How to deal with the current underavailability of backbone to home&office LAN connections? David's solutions chart includes a combination of regulated monopoly (meet the new boss, same as the old boss), government ownership, and customer ownership. There's undoubtedly some missing, given the 'no business here' fallacy, but I like at least one of these anyway.
It's not government ownership. It's great that at least Stockholm seems to have got it mostly right, but I can also point you to some dirigiste fiascos that set their own causes back by years. The political risks inherent in making such a long term and overt commitment of public resources ensure it's not going to be a fast moving process at any rate. A poor place to look for market drivers.
Customer ownership has a lot to say for it, however. As Bill Gurley pointed out in one of his ATC letters, WiFi is letting customers effectively substitute their own capital expense for that of 3G carriers. We're on the edge of getting both 802.16/a and variant WiFi implementations that can run a decent medium weight backbone to premises link. And they will be appearing at prices in the $300-500 range per connection. That's not far above the $150-250 pricepoint that even consumers proved to be willing to repeatedly pay for improving bandwidth during the escalation from 1200 up to 57.6k modems.
Yep, backhauling that'll be one of those impossible 'undifferentiated' businesses that supposedly won't work. But would you rather be an incumbent with all those switches and all that copper on the balance sheet, or be starting with your customers carrying a lot of the financial load and technology upgrade risk? As I've mentioned before the regulatory battleground that matters right now is making sure there's sufficient spectrum available that this path can't be blocked, and we can get the scale economics working. The rest is a rear-guard action.