First rule of first principle thinking, do not use first principle thinking when a mental model is available

Category: stupid network

Connectivity , Service Unbundling & Mobile 2.0

In barcamp2, farhaan during his talk mentioned how should telco’s should rise out of the slumber that they are in and not waste copious amount of money on buying 3G license & installing 3G networks. How new connectivity technologies like Wifi/Wimax networks would change the rules of the game for telecom players.

In between Ramesh raised a very valid point in the discussion where he stated that Wifi network is fractured saying it is specific to a location. One can’t move while accessing wifi, it is like you have to go to the location where wifi is situated.

The point that I think farhaan was trying to make was not to just show a comparison between 3G or wifi technical capabilities & features.  But rather a discussion on how open & closed networks fare against each other. How a stupid & intelligent network when pitted against each other would play out. Networks when designed stupid at the core allows the possibility of unbundling of application/service & connectivity.  We have been only exposed with networks in which these (connectivity & application) are so much fused to each other that we fail to see that these two things can be separated. (For example in a PSTN network just laying down the cables between our house and nearest exchange and making the copper wire live does not allow us to make phone calls. This part is purely connectivity.  When the phone is issued a phone number and switched into telco network, it is then we are able to make phone calls. Thus the application here is making phone calls and connectivity is the laying of wire from my home to the exchange. It is that we have also seen this together always that we can’t imagine as a application & connectivity separately in a PSTN).

As I have mentioned in my presentation one of the key drivers of moving towards a mobile/telco 2.0 is that of unbundling of service & connectivity. This will be give rise to new entities in the industry either within same organization or as two different business, one specializing in application/services and other excelling at providing connectivity. 

Now talking specifically about the problem that Ramesh raised, yes wifi is not a mobile technology and it is true it is fractured. But then it can/has to be viewed as a interesting problem to solve rather than as a hindrance.   And that is exactly what a company called FON is doing. The ingenuity of FON is that it is solving the problem through the help of building a community of wifi users. The idea is very simple – I use my internet/wifi for what I want to in my home and share the rest of it for free/fee with others in the community. When I go to anywhere else in the world I get access to FON network wifi which is hosted by others in the FON community there. Thus providing solution to the fracturedness problem of wifi. Pretty neat !! 

    The primary job of any telco is to solve a big coordination problem of laying a network, getting devices at the end point, connecting users etc. Anyone familiar with graphs would quickly agree that a network is bunch of contracts (edges) between end points(nodes). If there are no end points then there is no network but since a telco providers take the initial risk and coordinates the of building the network it wrongly assumes that it owns the network and charges abominous rents for that.

    I would call this as a telco 2.0 (connectivity business) provider and am very fascinated by the possibilities it raises.

     Users can do away with a telco and be owner of  network if somehow they can coordinate among themselves to build a network which is very very tough challenge. The brilliance of solution like FON is that it solves this coordination problem through the help of the users themselves by building a community of the users and taking care of their incentive to build  a network 🙂

(Full disclosure: I am doing some consulting work for FON now)

Network Intelligent or Stupid

Rajiv mentions in his recent post about an interesting discussion that surfaced in the mobile monday meet about design of network architecture. Where should the intelligence lie in a network? It is a quite an important discussion and I will add my two bits to the meme here. 

As Rajiv pointed out that those who come from the telco world revere that intelligence should lie in the network. I think that is the case because the people who from that side of the camp have not been exposed to any alternate network design structure so as to evaluate against anything else. Secondly we humans are in general resistant to change of any kind and also why would someone want to jeopardize the huge pot of gold one owns. But then those who come from the PC (software) world would think who would be such a bozo to put intelligence(in other words optimize the core) into the network. 

From technical PoV Is it better to design a network where the core of the network is intelligent and the edge of it very dumb ?

 End to End Principle in system design is a seminal technical paper written way back in the 80’s  by Reed, Schultz & Clark which argues why it is better to design a system in with intelligence kept to a minimum at the core. The argument in the paper is that 

“ that functions placed at low levels of a system may be redundant or of little value when compared with the cost of providing them at that low level”

To understand this in an intuitive manner reflect on this, today’s optimization for someone is another person’s headache tomorrow.(Software engineers can relate to this very well as they face this situation a lot in their daily work). By putting an intelligence (in other words optimizing for something) we reduce our option value for a later application tomorrow. For example the PSTN network that was built was optimized for voice totally and it can’t be used for any other purpose. To support a different application a new network has to be installed (which involves massive cost).This is also explained in a very clear way in another seminal piece of work by David Isenberg. He wrote about it as an article in 97 titled as “The rise of stupid network”.

  Thus technically speaking it is better to design a network which is stupid network at the core & the intelligence should be left to the edge. If you look at networks that are gaining prominence & acceptance by users then they are the stupid networks ( internet, Japan’s i-mode). If it were not for a stupid network then during the recent ban on blogspot sites we would have found ourselves very helpless. Even when ISP’s blocked blocked the site we could very easily circumvent that.  A stupid network puts maximum power into the hands of a user that is why millions love it are adopting it with great fervor. It makes living on the edge possible & so much fun 🙂

 The best network thus is a stupid network as far s user is concerned but will this network will help a telco milk money out of users is totally different question.

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