The Threadbare Carpet

Ubiquitous network, global reach, any time, anywhere connectivity, we all know the lingo and have probably used it from time to time. The reality is somewhat different. Sadly different. Devastatingly different, if you have wandered around a major city looking for a cybercafe or a wireless hotspot, as I did in Boston last week, or if you have baulked at the outrageous pricing that some places charge for access.

The fact is, when the marketeers and CTO’s mapped out the new landscape, they forgot to take into consideration the fact that there are humas involved. Humans are slow on the uptake and resistant to change, meaning that it takes a long time for any great change to take place. “Evolution, not revolution” is not the mantra of progress, but a recogition that people don’t say jump when you want them to. And Geoffrey Moore’s chasm (or Gartner’s trough) in their respective adoption curves is in fact a generour way of saying that most people just don’t want what they’re being offered. With wireless, we have the chicken and egg that people aren’t the purchasers of hotspots, rather their users, but they don’t want to pay for them; menawhile the operators, stung by 3G, are not going to make the mistake of spending too much beefore the demand is assured. Frankly, they can’t afford to.

The end result, is rather than having a finely knitted mesh of connectivity, we have a threadbare carpet, a rag rug of many different protocols which shows its ill-fitting seams far too clearly.

Nobody is thinking about the customer perspective. Let’s stop for a second and think what these requirements are.

1. The customer should not have to give a monkey’s grunt what the protocols are. The way the protocols work together should be entirely transparent to the user. As an interface between applications and networks, the TCP/IP protocol set is a no-brainer. Everything below that should be someone else’s problem, and should be auto-selected based on a user’s service needs.

All this fighting over protocols has resulted in turf wars, which does the service consumer no good whatsoever.

2. A number of services are so obvious they barely need listing, but I will anyway:

– application access. In other words, a Web-based front end onto anything, be it a travel bookings service or music station

– media access. Video, audio, with the necessary clarity to make it usable.

– interpersonal access. Email, chat and discussion boards, coupled with voice communications, in a nutshell.

These three access types, and combinations of each, give people everything they might need

3. Customers want to pay the minimum, if anything at all, for their access. This is fair enough, given the low prices of some access types and the fact that access is a means, and not an end in itself. People should pay for applications,and we don’t need new and improved micropayments mechanisms for this. Telcos already have billing structures that can pay a percentage to each other, there are also time-based subscription mechanisms and credit cards. Don’t give me micropayments, I don’t need them, not for this anyway. Where billing happens, it should be transparent, for example as an on-screen counter: if somebody (say, starbucks) wants to pay for me instead, I’d be happy to see the unobtrusive advert on my screen that told me so. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a “water is a basic right” argument. It’s more like I wouldn’t expect to pay for the pavement,or for the shopping centre, or for the cinema walls before I can sit in the seat.

There is nothing at all wrong with the concept of a basic service being given away for free, but a better or more complex service being available at extra cost. The basic serviecs I would suggest are voice and data messaging, and Web access. More expensive would be higher-bandwidth apps such as image/video and gaming, these and other applications could be paid for. It is simple to work out how – application providers need to pay to have their applications hosted on the Internet. That’s it, that’s all, just as the consumer shouldn’t pay a thing to walk into a shop. It is then up to the application provider to edcide how to cover those costs, for example by charging for the service or by considering it as a loss leader or a worthy plan. Charities, for example, pay for mail shots, they can also pay for people to see their web sites, even if somebody else chooses to bear this cost.

I believe that a basic service should be given away. The reasons for this may be entirely self serving, but also they are based on developing a ubiquitous service on a global basis. If not given away, they should exist on a subscription basis. One way or another, it should be absolutely clear what is being paid for, when and why. WIthout some kind of basic, low cost service, it becomes difficult to extend the model as broadly as required. For example, a service shoudl function not only town to town but also country to country. Given the fact that the internet knows no national boundaries (ask a packet), it is laughable to suggest that packet-based access shoudl cost any different whichever country one is in. This is undoubtedly true for western countries.. There should not even be a variance from hotel to hotel.

Tesco’s should install free wireless hotspots in its shops. This would be achievable at relatively low cost, be a great PR coup, and set Tesco’s as a thought leader in teh market place. It would be a bit like Tesco’s insurance, books or pharmacy shaking up the market.

3. Customers expect a level of service guaranteed. The service should be secure and available, within limits. It should not be necessary to trawl around a major city looking for somewhere to plug in – this is a laughable situation that should be resolved as quickly as possible. Consolidation is an inevitable element of the solution, which should be available on autility basis – like water, in fact. I think the biggest weakness at the moment is service transparency. For example, bandwidth availability should be as visible on any device as the signal strength meter on a mobile phone.

The right connectivity, the right apps and services, using the right costing model. That’s it! The fabric/carpet analogy is a good one. In a fabric, every thread is as strong as the others, otherwise the strength of the whole fabric is at risk. Who’d pay for a threadbare old piece of material, unless there was some antique value in it? Which, hopefully, is what will happen to the network.

The Threadbare Carpet

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