Monday, February 13, 2012

Hyperspecialization and the shakeup of a 100 year old industry

As someone who often finds themselves "in the trenches" dealing with some extremely nerdy technical nuances it's often easy to miss the larger picture.  I guess Mark Spencer was right when he said "Not many people get excited about telephones but the ones who do get REALLY excited about telephones".

As someone who's natural inclination is to get stuck in the details I certainly understand this.  Some of you might be right there with me.  At this point I've gotten so specialized I'm next to useless on some pretty basic "computer things".  Think of the aunt or other relative/friend that lights up when they find out you're a "computer guy".  Then they inevitably pull you aside at a wedding to ask for help with their printer or "some box that pops up in Windows".  I'm happy to not have to feign ignorance any longer: I truly am ignorant on issues like these.

I primarily use a Mac because it just works - for me.  That's not the point I'm trying to make here, though.  A Mac works so well for me because I use just two applications: a terminal (Iterm2, to be exact) and Google Chrome.  Ok, ok every once in a while I whip up some crazy Wireshark display syntax but that's another post for another day.  For the most part when I need to work I take out my Mac, it comes out of sleep, connects to a network, and I start working.  It's a tool.

As far as anything with a GUI goes that's the extent of my "expertise".  If my aunt wanted to ask me about my bash_profile, screenrc settings, IPv4 address exhaustion, or SIP network architecture I may have something to say.  Other than that you'll find me speaking in vague generalities than may lead the more paranoid to suspect I'm secretly a double for the CIA or some international crime syndicate member.  I wish I were kidding, this has actually happened before although "international crime syndicate" usually gets loosely translated to "drug dealer".  How else does a supposed "computer guy" not understand what's wrong with my printer?!?!

As usual there's a point to all of this.  My hyperspecialization, in this case, allows me to forget what is really going on all around me: a shakeup in the 100 year old industry I find myself in and a change in the way we communicate.

The evolution of the telephone is a strange thing.  It is a device and service that has remained largely unchanged for 100 years.  I'm not kidding.  To this day, in some parts of the United States, the only telephone service available could be installed by Alexander Graham Bell himself.  Sure there have been many advances since the 1900s but they've been incremental improvements at best - digital services with the same voice bandwidth (dating to 1972), various capacity and engineering changes, and of course - the cell phone.

In the end, however, we're left with a service that isn't much different than what my grandparents had.  You still have to phonetically spell various upper-frequency consonants ("S as in Sam, P as in Paul, T as in Tom") because the upper limit of the voice bandwidth on these services is ridiculously low (3.1 kHz).  Straining to hear the party at the remote end of a phone has only gotten worse with various digital compression standards in use today - EVRC, AMR, G.729, etc.  I love to compare the "pin drop" Sprint commercials of the 80s and 90s to the Verizon Wireless "CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?" campaign over 20 years later.  We still dial by randomly assigned strings of 10 digit numbers.  This is supposedly progress?

One thing that has changed - the network has gotten bigger.  Much bigger.  My grandparents may have not had much use for their party line because they didn't have anyone of interest to talk to on the other end.  In this manner the network has exploded - and it has exploded using the same standards that have been in place for these past 100 years.  I can directly dial a cell phone on the other side of the world and be connected in seconds.

Meanwhile, there has been another network explosion - IP networks and the internet.  The internet, of course, needs no introduction.  While I'd love to spend some time talking about IP that's time I don't have at this point.  Let's just look at a couple of ways IP has been extremely disruptive for this 100 year old franchise.

Not many people outside of telecom noticed it at the time but back in 2009 AT&T (THE AT&T) petitioned the FCC to decommission the legacy PSTN (copper and pairs and what-not).  Just over two years later we're starting to see some results, and AT&T is realizing some ancillary benefits.

As someone who has spent some time (not a lot, thankfully) in these central offices the maze of patch cables, wiring blocks, DC battery banks, etc make you really appreciate the analysis of this report.  Normally networks are completely faceless - you go to or dial 8005551212 without seeing the equipment that gets you to the other end.  The fact that SBC reclaimed as much as 250 MILLION square feet by eliminating this legacy equipment is incredible.

That's all well and good but what has AT&T done for us, the users?  The answer is, unfortunately, both good and bad.  AT&T like many physical, trench-digging network providers, has realized they are in the business of providing IP connectivity.  They don't have much of a product anymore and the product they do have is becoming more and more of a commodity everyday.

Getting out of the way is the smartest thing they could be doing.  Speaking of AT&T, remember the Apple iPhone deal?  At the time a cell phone was a cell phone - AT&T provided an IP network and got some minutes but Apple built an application platform and changed the way people view the devices they carry with them everywhere they go.  Huge.

Watch any sci-fi movie from the past 50 years and one almost ubiquitous "innovation" is the video phone.  Did AT&T or some other 100 year old company provide the video phone for baby's first steps to be beamed to Grandma across the country?  No - Apple did it with Facetime and a little company from Estonia (Skype) did it over the internet.  Thanks to these companies and IP networks we finally have video conferencing (maybe they'll release a 30th anniversary edition of Blade Runner to celebrate).

Unfortunately, there will always be people that cling to technologies of days past - this new network works well for all of these applications that were designed for it.  Meanwhile, some technologies are being shoehorned in with disastrous results.  Has anyone noticed faxing has actually gotten LESS reliable over the past several years?  That's what happens when you try to use decades-old modem designs on a completely different network.  You might as well try to burn diesel in your gasoline engine.

The future is the network and the network (regardless of physical access medium) is IP.

And now, for good measure, here are some random links for further reading:

Graves on SOHO Technology - An early advocate of HD Voice, etc.
The Voice Communication Exchange - Wants to push the world to HD Voice by 2018.