SpectralShifts Blog 
Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Law of Wireless Gravity

I've written about the impacts of and interplay between Moore’s, Metcalfe’s and Zipf’s laws on supply and demand of communication services and networks.  Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws can combine to drive bandwidth costs down 50% annually.  Others have pointed out Butter’s law, coming from a Bell Lab’s wizard, Gerry Butter, which arrives at a more aggressive outcome; a 50% drop every 9 months!  Anyway those are the big laws that are immutable and washing against and over vertically integrated monopolies like giant unseen tsunamis.

Then there are the smaller laws, like my friend Russ McGuire at Sprint who penned, “The value of any product or service increases with its mobility.”  Wow, that’s very metcalfian and almost infinite in value because the devices and associated pathways can move in 3 planes.  I like that and have always believed in McGuire’s Law (even before he invented it!).

Since the early 1990s, when I was one of the few, if only, analyst on the Street to cover wired and wireless telecoms, I’ve been maintaining that wireless is merely access to wireline applications.  While that has been validated finally with “the cloud” and business models and networks have been merging (at least at the corporate level) the majority of people still believe them to be fundamentally distinct.  It shows in simple things like interfaces and lack of interoperability across 4 screens.  Thankfully all that is steadily eroding due to cloud ecosystems and the enormous fight happening in the data world between the edge and the core and open vs closed:  GOOG vs AAPL vs MSFT (and let’s not forget Mozilla, the OS to rule all OS’?).

Anyone who works in or with the carriers knows wireless and wired networks are indelibly linked and always have been in terms of backhaul transport to the cell-tower.  But over the past 6 years the symbiosis has become much greater because of the smartphone.  1G and 2G digital networks were all capable of providing “data” connections from 1998-2006, but it really wasn’t until the iPhone happened on the scene in 2007 along with the advent of 3G networks that things really started taking off.

The key was Steve Jobs’ demand to AT&T that smartphone applications purchased through the App Store have unfettered access to the internet, be it through:

  • 2G, which was relatively pervasive, but slow at 50-300kbps,
  • 3G, which was not pervasive, but faster at 500-1500 kbps, or
  • Wifi (802.11g), which was pervasive in a lot of “fixed” areas like home, work or school.

The latter made a ton of sense sense, in particular, because data apps, unlike voice will more likely be used when one is relatively stationary, for obvious visual and coordination and safety reasons; the exception being music.  In 2007 802.11g Wifi was already 54 mbps, or 30-50x faster than 3G, even though the Wifi radios on smartphones could only handle 30 mbps.  It didn’t matter, since most apps rarely need more than 2 mbps to perform ok.  Unfortunately, below 2 mbps they provided a dismal experience and that’s why 3G had such a short shelf-life and the carriers immediately began to roll out 4G.

Had Jobs not gotten his way, I think the world would be a much different place as the platforms would not have been so generative and scaled so quickly.  This is an example of what I call Metcalfian “suck” of the application ecosystem for the carriers and nothing exemplified it better than the iPhone and App Store for the first few years as AT&T outpaced its rivals.  But it also upset the normal order of business first and consumer second through the bring your own x (BYOD) trend, blurring the lines between the two traditionally separate segments.

But few people to this day realize or appreciate the real impact that Steve Jobs had, namely reviving equal access.  The latter was something the carriers and federal government conspired to and successfully killed in the early 2000s.  Equal access was the horse that brought us competitive voice in the early 1980s, competitive data in the early 1990s and helped scale digital wireless networks nationwide in the late 1990s.  All the things we’re thankful for, yet have forgotten, or never entirely appreciated, how they came about.

Because of this “smart” or market driven form of equal access and in appreciation of Steve Jobs’ brilliance, I am going to introduce a new law.  “The Law of Wireless Gravity: a wireless bit will seek out fiber as quickly and cheaply as possible.”  I looked it up on google and it doesn’t exist.  So now I am introducing it into the public domain under creative commons.  Of course there will be plenty of metaphors about clouds and attraction and lightning to go along with the law.

I hope people abide by this law in all their thinking about and planning for broadband, fiber, gigabit networks, application ecosystems, devices, control layers, residential and commercial demand, etc…because it holds across all of those instances.  Oh, yeah, it might actually counter the confusion over and disinformation about spectrum scarcity at the same time.  And it might solve the digital divide problem, and the USF problem, and the bandwidth deficit….and even the budget deficit.  Ok, one step at a time.

Posted by: Michael Elling AT 09:49 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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