Is Net Neutrality regulation commie nonsense?

Network Economy

Regulation’s a bad thing, right? Personally, I think there are instances where regulation is an amazingly good thing that drives innovation. We also need to be cautious about who is saying regulation is good or bad. Back in the 90’s we’d hear that regulating in anyway to prevent acid rain would cripple business and kill our economy. This clearly didn’t happen, we have acid free rain for the most part, we have more productive manufacturing than ever. We also hear that regulating CEO pay by median rather than average is significantly more complicated to the point that a place stacked full of MBA’s can’t figure it out. Then there are regulations that pick winners like Solyndra and turns out to be a disaster. These cause higher taxes and are actual drains on the economy (personally I’m on the fence about experimenting with new technologies and having the government support them, but that’s me).

What about the FCC “regulating” net neutrality? I think that it’s important to look at how this all started. First, I’ll start with a bit of a history with the telecoms, then move to how the internet was developed, and move to comparisons between other monopolies.

AT&T has been described as a natural monopoly. This was partially helped by the US government because the government wanted coast to coast telephony and selected AT&T as the standard for that activity. This gave AT&T incredible market strength, but was also extremely fragile as it was continually under threat of being broken up for being a monopoly (which is was). To do everything they could to avoid this, the geniuses at Bell Labs continually designed ways to keep their costs down, improve quality, and make very thing better. They also had some government deals that helped them a lot (military contracts for telecom stuff, like the first satellite). The value of AT&T’s network grew every time a person joined the network.

The fact that one person joined Network A over Network B could further impact the growth of that network. Let’s say Person A is friends with 5 people and is already on Network A, it’s likely, if they are really good friends and A is known for making good decisions, that those five people will join A on Network A. The value increases by more than simply 5, because all five of those people can talk to each other as well as every other person they know on Network A. Now if Person A has more friends, but not as good of friends and they actually are better friends with Person A’s friends they will also likely join Network A. This sort of cascade effect will continue to happen. This is also known as Metcalfe’s law.

When AT&T was force to break up, all of that interoperability remained. Instead of one big monopoly there were regional ones instead. As we’ve seen over time, these same regional operators have slowly re-joined back into 2 Bells versus the non-Bells. AT&T being split is a type of regulation for sure, but it did spur some interesting competition for a time.

How the Internet was designed:

The internet was originally designed to operate in many different application layers. Essentially the bottom of the stack was Internet Protocol which was agnostic to the type of information being sent across it. At the time, the most efficient method was over Ethernet so there was not any requirement to be concerned over the application medium. Over time there would be some concern, but that was really addressed by the protocol.

What would happen is that the applications that required information to be sent on either end would translate the information to be used by the layer below it to send out, such as a web browser to the OS, to the network driver to IP, across the internet to the network driver to the OS to the web server application. Across this entire process the actual data being sent was unknown to any of the nodes in between the application layers. (If you’re interested in this check out Internet Architecture and Innovation).

Of course the companies providing the bandwidth for that did not want to find itself in a similar role as they had after the break up of AT&T where they were forced to become “dumb pipes” for whatever people wanted to send across their network. To prevent this they created capabilities like deep package inspection and other tools to identify what content was being shipped across their lines. This also was the beginning of violating “True” net neutrality.

Why were they dumb pipes? Because they were defined as a common carrier to increase competition across the land line providers and ISPs the telephone companies had no choice. This lead to the explosion of ISPs like AOL, Century Link, and so on. What has happened since? The broadband lines have been ruled that they are not “Common Carriers“. Meaning that the data across the line can be treated however the companies that own the lines want.

Why is this bad in a network economy?

In a network economy, being able to fully control anything and everything can be very bad for the consumer if there is no other option. Now, you could argue that there are options, but in most cases because of other monopoly rules there are few options for allowing a new ISP.

A perfect example where a network monopoly isn’t a big deal is in Smart Phones. The iOS App Store is a natural monopoly in a network. The more people using the iPhone the more valuable it became and more app developers developed apps. It never became a problem that Apple regulates the entire experience BECAUSE there were other networks you could shift to, such as Blackberry, webOS, Windows (whatever mobile version you want to include), and, of course, Android. All of these ecosystems offer very different options for devs. Additionally, within Android there are competing App stores which further benefits the consumer. If there were no other competitors to iOS and it’s App Store the constraints that Apple puts on their product would likely be viewed as very anti-competitive and a type of “foreclosure.”

Market foreclosure is using one monopoly to enable another monopoly. Now, regardless of if you think that this should have happened or not, it did. Microsoft was hit for using it’s Window’s OS to foreclose on the internet browser market and was looking to do the same with their music player. What resulted was that MS was required to offer other browsers when a new Windows OS was launched and helped to reduce the market share of IE.

How does this apply here? Comcast is already trying to do the same with Netflix in the streaming video business. Comcast owns the content (Universal, NBC, etc), the connection (Comcast Cable ISP), the rules (data caps), and if they want to charge to access their network or not. Eliminating the rules of net neutrality tilt the table in the direction of Comcast to a degree that Netflix may never recover. If Netflix, at one point 2/3 of all internet traffic, had to pay for every bit they streamed to allow for an enjoyable streaming experience they would be bankrupt in very short order.

I get that Comcast’s of the world don’t want to be dumb pipes, they own the content and that’s king. However, not every ISP owns content (Verizon/AT&T) so they aren’t at such an advantage to companies like Netflix. However that’s where AT&T’s data plan comes in. Which would essentially level the table compared to Comcast. We, as end users, wouldn’t see any benefit out of this. It’s not that our subscription fees would lower or we’ll magically get faster internet. This is simply rent seeking behavior and bad for the economy overall. Only true new competition can lead to that. Changing these rules have zero impact on that competition.

What it does do though is negatively impact the creation of new businesses that want to stream video or provide a novel product that requires high bandwidth and equal rights to streaming. Removing the protections on net neutrality dramatically increases the cost of streaming that otherwise could go into building that startup’s infrastructure. Think of the problems at Twitch.TV with their growth. My subscription fees pay for the growth of the network that I subscribe to regardless if it’s something like Twitch or Comcast. Anything else will go to shareholders and CEOs.

Could we develop other options like a Mesh network? It’s possible, but for that to work the option would have to be a public/private venture. Most citizens aren’t going to help create that and likely don’t have the technology savvy to do so. To further complicate this issue many ISPs are actually pushing to make it illegal for cities to create their own ISP.

In many cases regulation is bad for business. However, in cases like net neutrality it’s returning the net to it’s roots and enabling much stronger competition based on the merits of the company providing the service, not the arbitrary whim of network owner.

Sponsored data and YOU!

This could be your lucky day, your cellular provider is going to start offering packages where certain content doesn’t cost you anything in your data cap. This is awesome. You can start streaming more and more video/music/whatever it is that you stream from your favorite services. However, not all of your favorite services will be free of data charge! So make sure that you tell your favorite service that YOU want THEM to sign up and make their content data cap free to you! All those service providers have to do is pay your cellular provider money to stop the data caps! No, seriously, AT&T wants to do this.

Is this a problem? I think it depends on who you are. For a consumer in some cases this is pretty awesome. Let’s say you love to watch video games being streamed on Twitch.tv by your buddies over at KBMOD and Twitch decides to pay money to prevent your data from being charged against your data cap. But you’re also a huge fan of MLG and MLG just decided to start their own Twitch competitor but they can’t afford to pay those same fees. Well, guess you’ll be only watching MLG from your PC or on wifi. Too bad your favorite shows are on while you’re not able to use Wifi though! O well, Twitch is there for you though!

This is a niche market obviously. Not everyone cares about watching someone play streaming video games or even streaming video games to your phone so you can keep playing a game you were playing from home. A lot of people care about TV and movies though. We can look at this as something that’s really analogous to what Comcast was trying to do to Netflix close to two years ago. In April of 2012 Comcast announced that its Xfinity streaming service would not be charged against your Comcast data caps while Netflix streaming service would be. Netflix’s CEO argued that this violated Net Neutrality because it provided preferential treatment to one source of data over another.

What is Net Neutrality? Well, there are two different arguments, which I discuss in a blog here, where one is saying everything must be treated equally, while the other one argues that there are nuances and we can treat data differently because we need to “Groom” our networks. Internet and network purists believe that you shouldn’t even be able to determine what the data is or what the source of that data is if you’re a point along the network, just where it most recently was and where it needs to go next. The only application that can read the data in the package is the application that requested it.

AT&T’s plan, similar to Comcast’s, is in violation of Net Neutrality and the FCC will step in to regulate this type of “service” because it’s, in the end, bad for the consumer. Unfortunately, there are limitations to what the FCC can do and even potentially what AT&T can do.

There has been much more of a push for encryption and it’s likely that these pushes may actually enable more of a return to the true meaning of Net Neutrality. If all of our data is fully encrypted, deep packet inspection tools (which tell if the data you’re getting is video, music, or whatever), won’t work very well as that information will be encrypted. Furthermore, if your application’s data is all encrypted and AT&T won’t be able to tell if your data is your data then there’s no value in paying for “privileged” data status from AT&T.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ll likely support company’s like Wickr, an encrypted Snapchat competitor, which told the FBI to screw itself when they were asked to put a backdoor into their encryption. It’s important that we work to protect our data and support companies that do so in terms of Net Neutrality and encryption.

What companies do you support that encrypt and fight for net neutrality?

Data caps can we get rid of them?

Changes are afoot in the mobile industry. We’ve been seeing a sea change with how T-mobile looks at their customers. They’ve been changing the contracts and potentially even eliminating them. They’ve separated the phone payment plan from the monthly access fees which is an imortant first step in completely separating the purchase of a phone from the carrier that provides the services. This will eventually reduce the amount of junk files installed because  the carriers can’t force the providers to install them. I think that the reason why the Nexus 7 isn’t on Verizon Wireless is that they are refusing to install the bloatware that the Verizon is trying to force upon Google. I think this is a good thing. Google has also filed a suit against VZW to force them to allow the Nexus 7 on their network. This is going to break the carriers power over the user. Carriers don’t want to be dump pipes for the internet. The wired and cable companies are actively fighting against this by puttng data caps on downloading content. At the same time they’ve experimented with this, the wireless providers have been much harsher. However, these caps weren’t a problem in the past. According to BGR a website that focuses on mobile issues has noted that the amount of data that wireless users has begun to regularly break the data caps. T-mobile has also offered all of their plans without datacaps. This will likely push many data users on verizon and AT&T to switch over to these networks. This will likely put more pressure on the carriers than they have experienced in over a decade. I look forward to this increase in competition especially since I refuse to go over my data caps and greatly limit the amount of data that I use over the wireless networks. I believe we’ll see some interesting changes in the future.

I think that these changes will also preclude the merger of T-mobile and sprint as the US market needs additional competition not less. I think that there will be changes in all of the companies marketing and product offerings, but likely T-mobile will be the largest winner with Sprint in second.

Content is king, but if you build it will they come?

In yesterday’s blog I wrote a lot about the different operating systems and what differentiates them. However, I didn’t answer the question around how to build a user base or even more importantly the app base. For all operating systems there is a chicken and egg problem, which comes first the apps or the users – you can’t get users with out apps and no users will go with your system with no apps!

I think a look at how two companies have worked to overcome this is crucial to provide a path forward for the other operating systems. First of all, Google entered the mobile market in exactly this position. I wrote a paper on this while I was in my Master’s (written 2011) the really details this if you want to read that. Google decided to approach the app issue from a very different direction than Apple. First, Google offered a good deal of money for developers to begin making apps for the operating system. Second, Google create a different reimbursement structure for their purchases of apps that provided incentive for developers to develop apps for them. Apple would essentially take ~30% of the total price the developer charged for their apps. This rent seeking behavior of Apple means that the developers could make more money on Android if they sold the same number of apps in both ecosystems. Both of these provided incentives for developers to develop – free money and more money for development. Furthermore, Google made it extremely easy to port an app from iOS to Android which increased the app development rate – Apple of course worked to eliminate this benefit. Finally, Google had different payment schemes than Apple for ad revenue and is a significantly better company for dealing with ads than Apple to this day. All of these provided a great deal of incentive in addition to the fact that there have always been anti-Apple developers and consumers.

The second case (which I didn’t do a research paper on) is of course Amazon. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post Amazon rarely makes a profit on any of their Kindle sales. Amazon’s current foray into tablet’s was not a serious surprise to me. The Kindle was clearly an effort to learn about their users and their consumption habits. Amazon first targeted their most loyal customers, book readers. Tablets weren’t really on the horizon at this point as anything beyond a novelty that Microsoft was pushing and eReaders had a questionable spot in the market when Amazon came out with the Kindle (the same year as Apple’s iPhone – I feel that the Kindle was a bigger step for Amazon than the iPhone for Apple). It was widely successful. I personally bought a second generation Kindle in 2009 (and have since upgraded to Paperwhite 1st gen). Amazon over time continually refined the Kindle and looked for more content to bring to the users. Amazon began to experiment with browsers, apps, and other features. Even at this point the Kindle was Android based, but their own custom version. This marked on of the first forks in the operating system. Amazon also developed applications for iOS, PC, Chrome, and Android for Kindle users. This helped to increase adoption and encourage Amazon that digital content is extremely valued by consumers. When Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire line of tablets they continued to focus on content. This is apparent from the design of the operating system. Content is first and foremost. Books, TV shows, and Movies are easily accessible and essentially the default view for the device. Through a different type of content Amazon has attracted users, furthermore, they are likely attracting a different set of users than the iPad or Nexus market. These users are very consumption focused and less engaged with applications.

Amazon has continued to push the quality of their products and can now compete spec to spec with any top of the line Android or iOS device. Their advantage is the Amazon ecosystem (which many tech writers scoff at), which is more accessible and connected with prime on their devices.

How can other operating systems learn from these cases? The owners of new operating systems need to provide an easy development platform. Many of Android’s applications are developed in HTML5 which should make it easier for porting from one OS to another. Another option is to partner with a third party company (if you know about it or not) like Microsoft did with Blue Stacks where it is possible to play any Android app on a computer. Google is doing something similar with the Chrome App store and browser, essentially turning any Win8 machine into a Chrome OS computer. Firefox OS could go this route on any computer and help to encourage developers to think multi-platform like this. Of the two problems, I believe that the app problem is the easier one to solve assuming it’s easy and there are the right incentive for developers. There are many platforms or tools that can even the playing field. Including marketing that users are able to use other platforms on your platform.

The more difficult type of content to pull is the licensed content from the RIAA and MPAA type organizations. I think that there could be a way for this content to gain the same feel as the Amazon experience. A mobile OS could partner with either Hulu or Netflix to provide an exclusive or personalized experience for the app that allows tighter engagement, then partner with B&N and build a strong app presence for the Nook. The next step would be to develop a seamless transition between the Nook application and Netflix/Hulu so that on one hand you knew when you switched, but it felt painless and enhanced the experience. Such as recommending books or movies based on your consumption of the other.

Finally, I think the crucial step is to find the right market. There are tons of under served markets especially in the smart phone/tablet sector. Firefox OS is going after the extremely low budget market, while it’s likely that both Ubuntu and Cyanogenmod are going to be going after the extreme high end market. I think those two are going to have more competition with the Nexus line up of devices and the extra support Google is providing to non-Samsung manufacturers like ASUS and LG. Google is doing everything they can to keep the market competitive and not owned by a single manufacturer. Cyanogenmod and Ubuntu could also work those same manufacturers to help them develop other markets that aren’t served by Google.

I think that the battle is going to be on the low budget space. Amazon is working hard to capture that with powerful but affordable tablets that are subsidized by ads. While Motorola is going after a similar market with the Moto G, a high power phone that is affordable. However, if a company looks at the base of the pyramid they are likely to find a huge untapped market that will never even own a laptop. They will go from a phone only capable of texting directly to smart phone or tablet. Developing tools that these underserved users can exploit will create a huge market that will catapult the operating system past all the others in global market share. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to survive on little to no margin.

Content is king, but if you build it will they come?

We are in a time when the number of operating systems are growing incredibly rapidly. This is essentially a throwback to the time when every company that made a Mainframe or Minicomputer developed their a custom operating system for that line of systems. This was because it was difficult to translate operating systems from one system to the next, each system had such radically different components that were hand built by the engineers designing the system, and the OS was a differentiator on the market that would increase sales based on its capabilities.

As it is the mobile operating system market has already gone through at least one round of expansion and contraction. Blackberry is on the brink, Palm was bought by HP and then sold to LG, Windows Mobile replaced by Windows RT (or just Windows 8), Nokia’s Symbian, Nokia’s MeeGo, Samsung’s operating systems Pre-Android Bada, and there are likely others. In general these have contracted down to two primary operating systems: iOS and Android on mobile. Windows is still trying to threaten with Windows 8 (the ARM version) but their market share is very limited (4.5% in August of 2013). Which essentially puts it down with all the other new operating systems that have recently come to market.

In my opinion there are two front runners for OSes not based on Android that have a chance to take market share. The first is Firefox OS, which has just begun shipping phones. I would argue that Firefox OS is actually more similar to Chrome OS than to Android because it’s very webcentric and focuses on apps that can be developed for Firefox and HTML5. I believe this does allow for a great deal of flexibility as Firefox is a great brand and already has a set of applications for the browser. These, hopefully, will be easily transferred to Firefox OS from the browser.

The second OS that I find especially interesting is Ubuntu mobile OS. This operating system I believe offers the future path that all OSes need to be considering. While running purely on battery it enters a scaled down operating system and power consumption, but when the phone or tablet is plugged in it converts to a full blown Linux operating system with a significantly higher level of processing power behind it. I believe that in the long run this type of operating system and processor combination will ultimately be the future (Samsung is doing some of this with their 10.1 2014 edition), because we will want to eliminate as many of our computing devices as possible. Tablets are already beginning to do this, and with the Phablet tablets are being replaced in some sizes. The lines will continue to blur and I think Ubuntu will be in a unique position to take advantage of that in the upcoming year.

There is one other dark horse OS that I know very little about, it’s Samsung and Intel’s joint venture. It is Linux based like Ubuntu and Android and it’s called Tizen. This has little to no adoption, but could be a player in the very low cost market. Which is where Firefox OS is positioning itself, while Ubuntu is putting itself at the high end market.

As for the Android derivatives, the most successful and largest threat to both iOS and the general Android platform is Amazon’s Fire OS. Amazon has had a long practice of pushing content over the cost of the product. In fact with most of their Kindle products they are barely breaking even or making pennies on each one sold.

The other derivative is also wildly popular but with a specific type of user. Cyanogenmod has offically become its own company and recently raised $23 million from venture companies. This is going to be a change for Cyanogenmod because they will not longer be able to use the Play store, which may not be that big of a problem because they’ve had an underground app store for some time.

There are others, I’m not trying to display an exhaustive list of mobile operating systems. What I’m trying to display here is that there’s a lot of competition in the mobile operating system space that is only going to become more difficult.

For a mobile operating system to be successful they need two things, applications and content that is viewable in those applications. This is the number one thing that most tech pundits talk about when discussing which platform is better between iOS, Android, or Amazon. In fact, they argue that Amazon’s weakest because of the limited number of apps partially because they do not have access to Google Play. Currently, Android and iOS are well over a million apps each. Which essentially means that they both have a huge number of apps and most of them are never used. It will take years for Amazon to come close and even longer for the other OSes to reach those numbers.

How can the other operating systems over come this limitation? I’ll answer that question in my next blog (published on 12/20/2013).