Fixing broadband as a service

Flowing Water
Flowing Water (CC) bcimet

Martin Geddes is one of the smartest brains in the business, and a good friend. That doesn’t stop us from disagreeing on a number of things (business related), the chief one being the notion that internet in general and IP routing specifically are broken and need fixing. That being said, and while I’m open to hearing any well constructed argument – even those I think I’ll disagree with – I never understood the technology reasoning behind that assertion of his, and that made it hard for me to translate it into a business reasoning.

The excellent video interview of Martin over at Br0kenTeleph0n3 has changed this. It is rather overdramatically entitled How to avoid the coming broadband catastrophe but is well worth 10 minutes of your time nonetheless.

The core of the argument as I understand it is that bandwidth needs are fluid, and bandwidth itself is only one (and maybe not the most important) component of the broadband experience. Therefore by offering speed as the only service differentiator, and the same speed to one customer all the time, broadband access providers are shooting themselves in the foot and missing out on the real business opportunity.

I find myself, therefore, in agreement with the core tenet if that is indeed what it is. I’m assuming there’s a depth of technical reasoning below that that I have no chance in hell of grasping, but that hardly matters to me as long as I understand the business consequences. So that leads me to a few points of mild disagreement and a few comments on implications:

  • The title of the article is overdramatic, and indeed Martin’s own speech is overdramatizing because service providers are not dying. As I mentioned before, I’m myself often guilty of treating the service providers as companies who are suffering in my own writing. Because the goggles through which they view the world are so antiquated, because they repeatedly do stupid things that are clearly not in their best interests, because the innovators in the market are no longer the service providers, etc. But that doesn’t make them a dying breed, and in fact the notion that they’re in dire straits is not supported by their financial performance. So I think we should be careful about not painting proposed solutions as “saves”, just as radical improvements.
  • Martin is indeed right that the issue is a mindframe issue. It’s not necessarily that people within these organisations don’t understand the argument. The technical people probably will, the marketing people will struggle (but if I can get it, surely they will). It’s that they consider the way the internet market works to be beyond their grasp. In his interview, Martin doesn’t touch much on the ecosystem implications of the changes he’s proposing, and implicitly suggests that service providers have full end-to-end control of the traffic they receive and send. That’s not the case (and I know he doesn’t think that) but it’s going to be one of the main objections to changing the way things are done.
  • The final point I’d like to make is that while there are no doubt ways to improve customer experience (and monetize that improvement), it’s easy – perhaps too easy – to read that as “there’s no issue in the access network”. In fact at one point in the interview Ian Grant tries to get Martin to comment on BT’s FTTC investment, and to his credit, Martin dodges the bullet by stating that that’s an infrastructure consideration. The question ultimately is: will the proposed changes in traffic management and monetization improve the performance enough to meet the challenges of demand in the next few years. I have a hard time believing that, so I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition, but here my own biases may be showing.