Project MAC, where we met S at MIT A the Software Arts building where we worked together T and the attic N where VisiCalc was written
Other writings on our personal sites:

RSS Feeds:



Comments from Frankston, Reed, and Friends

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

DanB at 5:02 PM [url]:

Unlicensed spectrum and other topics

I posted a report on a couple of public policy meetings on my personal weblog. I covered the MassBroadband Conference and a bit about the Mass eComm Roundtable. See "Public Policy Meetings". Of note may be Rep. Ed Markey's bill (H.R. 4641) that calls for more unlicensed spectrum. (I posted the full text of Markey's speech here.)

Sunday, June 09, 2002

BobF at 9:32 PM [url]:

Living a Lie?

One of my long running projects is maintaining the software I use to add a bit of programmability to my house using X-10 (X-10 is the most common protocol used to control lights and other devices in the home over the power line.) Because X-10 is very unreliable I set everything up so that, for the most part, light switches just turn on the light one would expect from a wired system. But by making the linkages soft I can do some enhancements such as turning off the lights late at night and assuring that the porch lights stay on.

Because I know that X-10 is very unreliable I wasn't surprised when I got a lot of errors while trying to send commands from my computer. Last week, as part of cleaning up the code I converted to VB.Net and C# and took advantage of the new features to simplify the code. I was able to isolate the portion of code that spoke to the X-10 devices and it became obvious that I had misinterpreted the X-10 protocol. Once I fixed it the error rate dropped from 10% (and often 100% for periods of time) to 0%. After sending thousands of commands I didn't get any failures. This doesn't mean that X-10 is that reliable - signals don't always reach their destinations and devices die - but the bugs in dealing with the interface were entirely mine. I did try other code and ran into the same errors so it wasn't just me. This is why I didn't try to solve the problem years ago.

It wasn't really a matter of lying to myself as much as not having the incentive to seek the truth. What we have is a failure of advocacy. I simply didn't have the incentive to solve a problem that I didn't know was solvable.

This is why the United States has a court system with lawyers who are advocates for the "guilty". Someone assigned to find the "truth" rather than advocate for innocence is not going to put in the extra effort it takes to go beyond the obvious.

This is also true in business and public policy. It is far too easy to accept limits when one has not strong motivation to question them. I just had a conversation with a professor who is a strong advocate of "broadband" but his experts told him that DSL couldn't do any better than it already does. As I pointed out in "More for Less" there are many ways to improve the capacity of DSL. In fact, DSL itself was developed when the phone companies had incentive to compete with the cable companies for carrying interactive television. It has been repurposed for Internet access. But there has been essentially no improvement once this happened.

Obviously there is limited incentive to increase the capacity of the existing copper infrastructure. In fact, the whole notion that DSL is the service is a lie. It's like confusing trains with transportation and being told that I simply cannot cross the ocean until they deployed enough pontoons to hold up the track.

DSL is simply one technique for increasing the capacity of an existing infrastructure. Adding silicon along the path to increase capacity and carrying voice telephone as data are ways to provide incremental improvements with incremental investment. At some point it makes sense to replace the copper with fiber.

But the innovation stopped because such improvements threatened the core business of voice telephony.

The problem is exacerbated by those who want to do us good and advocate a build-out of "broadband". They try to encourage more DSL deployment and thus assure that we are stuck with a technique that has stopped improving and, in fact they forbid improvement by defining the solution in terms of a particular means. Just last week I observed a Verizon truck installing new copper bundles rather than taking the opportunity to upgrade to fiber.

This is why it is important to frame the problem in terms of simple principles:
  • Connectivity. This is simply transport without favoring any particular service whether it is voice or the web or television or other data. The underlying transport technologies must enable the creation of new services rather than favoring the old ones.
  • Advocacy. With the inherent conflict of interests between the transport and service business the only way to assure that the incentives are aligned is to separate the two. Again and again the incumbents demonstrate the lack of incentive.
The Regulatorium and the industries of which it is born are very effective in creating (and preserving) problems of their own devise and then working very diligently to "solve them". Complex regulations are necessary when the incentives are out of alignment and thus the participants must be given an additional set of tangled counter-incentives in hope that the right thing will happen.

We must be careful not to premise public policy on what has become a lie. Focusing on a given solution rather then creating opportunity makes us hostage to its particulars. In a bold move France gave everyone in the country a computer terminal in the 1980's. But in the 1990's Minitel was essentially unchanged while the rest of the world had moved past it to the Internet. We see this in HDTV (High-Definition TV) and DTV (Digital TV) which seemed so exciting in 1995 yet now HDTV is lower resolution than what we expect from a low end computer and DTV. Yet we are still on track for forced adoption in 2006 or beyond.

Telephony offers one of the best examples. ISDN was supposed to replace the old fashioned analog phone system. It was to take the protocols used within the network and make some of them available to customers. But ISDN over-defined the solution and only large committees could make changes. In the meantime the old fashioned POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) allowed us to innovate. Even if it wasn't quite as fast as ISDN (though we pushed it very close) it was far more capable of responding to user needs. End users can connect their own equipment to the POTS lines and thus they were able to move it ahead while ISDN languished.

So-called "Broadband" policy must not get caught in this same focus on the accidental properties of a particular means. Our goal must be to align incentives.

When I buy a connection, I should not be told "Sorry, you're 18001 feet from the central office" or, "That's all the Cable Modem can do". The only question should be how much I am willing to buy and how little it will cost.
Click here to go to the X-10 site with all of its sales hype.

For more, see the Archive.

© Copyright 2002-2008 by Daniel Bricklin, Bob Frankston, and David P. Reed
All Rights Reserved.

Comments to: webmaster at satn.org, danb at satn.org, bobf at satn.org, or dpreed at satn.org.

The weblog part of this web site is authored with Blogger.