This is Episode 14 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. In this show, Bob Frankston describes the essence of the Internet and the importance of community-owned broadband network. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Lisa Gonzalez with he Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I also research and write for MuniNetworks.org.
In our fourteenth episode, Christopher Mitchell interviews Bob Frankston. Bob has been involved in computer science and the telecommunications industry for over fifty years, and is heavily involved in the telecommunications infrastructure policy debate. Bob has won numerous awards and is a champion in the drive to expand connectivity. Bob and Christopher talk about the essence of the internet and how a simple change in perspective can open doors for communities seeking broadband self-reliance.
Chris Mitchell: Bob Frankston, thank you for joining us on Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Bob Frankston: Thank you for asking me.
Chris Mitchell: One of the things that I thought you could help us understand is, when we talk about the internet and we talk about our telecommunications, we often think about it in terms of going through a major corporation or through a local government. You think about how we can connect using the internet differently. Can you walk me through that?
Bob Frankston: Any new technology is viewed in terms of the old. Cars originally cost us carriages. New trains switched to diesel, we had all the towers, people kept thinking of things the same way. Our metaphors for the internet go back to the telegraph lines, which ran along the railroad tracks. In fact, the FCC was modeled on the interstate commerce commission, as if everything was a telegram message units. There's another tradition that occurred totally independently, when we wanted to connected our computers we just used whatever copper radio wires to exchange packets until you got lost or re-transmitted. There was no network as such.
In that, that's more like the sidewalk. You want to get someplace, you could walk, take a path. You don't even need sidewalks. They just make it easier. The internet is really about the ability to convert everything to digital and exchange bits. If you think back to the days of the telegraph, you couldn't do that. You had to explain to somebody why the text wasn't a telegram and they can barely get that to work. Today we can just preserve the message without having to explain what we want to say.
Does that analogy work?
Chris Mitchell: Yes, I think so. There's one part about this that I think really struck a chord with me, and that's, when I think about it, if I'm upstairs and I want to talk to my wife and she's downstairs and I'm feeling very lazy, I'll use my cell phone. It goes and it pings a tower. It runs through some fiber probably very far away, comes back to that tower, goes back through and connects to my wife downstairs. Now if I understand correctly, that's primarily for billing reasons, right?
Bob Frankston: Yes. Again, take the sidewalk analogy. Picture if you wanted to make the sidewalk a service. WE have to do a lot of work to prevent people from just walking. If you have a network in your house that's IP, the packets don't even leave the house. If you go to your neighbor's house, why do those packets have to - Matter of fact, I've got both Comcast and Verizon for an experiment, and I once traced packets going two inches between my Comcast box and my Verizon box. They went from Boston to New York to Chicago and back again. Now the positive, it's remarkable that that works.
Chris Mitchell: Right.
Bob Frankston: It also means that we're creating all this legacy traffic as if you had to, picture we had the railroad model instead of sidewalks. You have to buy a ticket, go downtown, take a train back to visit your neighbor. We have to start thinking of the internet, and as I said earlier we just use whatever facilities to exchange packets, but it's really the opportunity to become stakeholders. Instead of relying on a telegraph operator to carry our messages, we could just talk to each other locally. Think of a tin can with strings, except we could just extend the strings ourselves electronically. We don't need somebody in the middle. Once you understand that, all we need, and again to continue the sidewalk analogy, is to hire somebody to basically help keep the bits flowing inside your house. What I did at Microsoft, the way I’ll say it now, I gave people control of the wires in the house so you can use it for networking, unlike the original plan where you'd have to pay each month for each PC. To make the point even more, if you wanted an IP printer, which means an internet printer, which is common now, you can just put a printer on the network in your house and just connect to it.
Chris Mitchell: Right, and we actually were just doing that yesterday in our office. It's incredibly handy.
Bob Frankston: You wouldn't have been able to do it.
Chris Mitchell: Let's step back for a second for people who aren't aware. I learned about this in an interview you did with Leo Laporte on the Twit Network. Basically, in a time when the internet connection, we started getting broadband connections at the home, you were at Microsoft and you introduced something into the router that basically shielded those from outside the network from seeing what was happening inside it so that there's no way that a broadband provider could know how many devices you were attaching.
Bob Frankston: That was actually a byproduct. I used an existing technology, network address translation. My real goal was to make things just work. I made sure Windows came, transferred internet-ready. You just plugged it in and it connected. I avoided asking the carriers for permission. All they were giving was one address on the internet: the network address translation technology. You can use that one address but connect all the devices in your house. By the way, the hard part for me is I talk about this as language, because we have a whole language, which assumes that telecommunications services that there is a physical thing called the internet. There is none. The internet is the way we use the available facilities.
Chris Mitchell: Right, we think of it, I think, as very deterministic. In reality, the internet is, sort of this, I think the cloud is probably the right analogy, and things can bounce around until they get where they're going. Am I missing ...
Bob Frankston: It's actually much simpler than that. The word cloud is very confusing to people. It's a cloud, but it rains, but it's not a problem in the cloud. They worry about running out of the internet as if, because the internet comes over wires just like electricity. It's very different. We use the wires to exchange bits, it's sort of like worrying about running out of the letter E. Think of the internet as the alphabet. It's the way we use paper to communicate, it's not the paper itself. That's what makes it so hard to talk about, because you can't point and say that's the internet. When you access the internet, it's a shorthand for saying, "We reached, connected something far away." You don't actually access the internet.
All these words, one example I used in a talk I gave is Pandora is radio. You're technical, so you think of the radio as a transmitter with all the wires. Almost a century ago the business model of radio was broadcast model, you confuse the terms. When I ask for radio now, even at a consumer electronics store, everyone gives me a radio station. It's hard to get to the technology. We have to, sort of, language gets in our way. I need to be very careful, so the way I look at it is, it's about radical simplicity.
If you wanted to basically connect your light switch to a light fixture right now, if you wanted to change that you have to call an electrician. Punch holes in the wall, run a wire. Right now I can buy a light bulb, which has a radio in it, it's thirty dollars, and all I do is I say, "That switch sends a message to the light bulb." I think it should then change the rules. It's much simpler. I don't have anything complicated to do. Instead, radical simplicity. Imagine you take that switch now, you put it in your pocket, you fly to China, it'll still turn on the same light. That's the theory. The problem is the internet we have now is still the prototype. Unfortunately one of the byproducts of isolating the home with the current protocols, you can't get to that light bulb. People say that's a feature, no that's a bug. In other words, I need to decide whether you're allowed to get to the light bulb, but you don't want to say you have no choice.
A good example of it I like is the internet technologies allow us to do remarkable things. If you ever watch a recent nature show you'll see lions in the Serengeti have collars now.
Chris Mitchell: Right.
Bob Frankston: Each one has a cellular phone account and a GPS. It's remarkable. The Maasai warriors in the same area can't connect their cows because of the billing problem. Technically there's no problem, but because of the funding model, the business model, they're not stakeholders. The internet and cellular all exist to take money and give it to shareholders, so by being a stakeholder in the community by owning it, you now have to do simple things.
Imagine if farmers can track cows. Can you imagine a new Western where the cowboys are all around the fire looking at their tablets tracking their cows?
Chris Mitchell: Right, well I think they'd want to track the lions maybe to know exactly where they were.
Bob Frankston: Well no, the wolves actually if we're thinking the US. On the other hand, working farmers, I'm sure, would really appreciate knowing where the cows are. That's remarkably easy to do if they own, they're stakeholders, they own the infrastructure. It's very hard to do if they're shareholders. That's why it's about the money, not in any evil sense, but if we choose to fund it and own it like we own our sidewalks, we enable things. If we choose to treat it like the railroad of the robber baron days, then we're beholden to shareholders and we can only do things that benefit them, not that benefits us.
Chris Mitchell: I've been thinking about this and we've talked about this in the past, and it seems to me that we would not expect corporations to take on this model.
Bob Frankston: It depends on the corporations. There are lots of corporations that take on the sidewalk model. You can hire people who'll be glad to work for you and pave the sidewalks. It's not whether it's a corporation, it's not whether it's public or private, it's who are the stakeholders. If a city, you know it doesn't really own the sidewalk it's just part of the city, but people get together either through local cooperative or through the city government to hire people to do the pavement. It's still a business model, it's just one that aligns incentives.
Chris Mitchell: With no proven funding model, we're not seeing a lot of internet from particular existing telecommunications carriers who don't want to cannibalize their model. We see local governments that are very risk averse who only want to do something that is going to have a proven benefit and not get any elected officials in trouble. I'm curious, here I am in a neighborhood, would it make sense for us to figure out a way of connecting a number of our houses together and then maybe having multiple internet connections tot he wider world that just, sort of, however we get off of our own local network we do. Is that a first step?
Bob Frankston: Yes it makes a lot of sense. The key, I argue, is you need to get rid of all the need to authenticate. Not just the billing issue, our security model, once you have to start authenticating everything, things become complicated. I understand that there's security issues, you still might want some protective systems, but overall what you need to do is get dense geographic coverage. Everybody thinks the internet is about reaching very far away. It's really about connecting things locally like on a farm or among farms. Imagine you can subscribe to a service, say to monitor crops for you or something. You want to be able to then own connectivity locally. You can do it many ways.
The simplest way is to have, sort of, a co-op and in some areas you have apartment houses, maybe you can do it in the building, and you will pool your resources and you buy a common connection. You get remarkable economies of scale. That's actually a very smooth model to start to expand out and you're right, cities are going to be risk averse for many reasons, but remember cities, especially small ones, are just the people. This is a positive sense. If enough citizens realize, just like sewers they start out as cesspools, at some point everybody gets together, "You know, we should get sewers." It's going to be that process.
If somebody just came in from out of town and said, "You should have left sewers," but be rejected, why do we need that? At some point houses get dense enough and you switch the model. You're right, you start out very locally, you own your common connectivity. One way to do it is to pool your resources. You can also share connection. About saving money, you can get access points like the one I have which allow five different local networks as well as open access. There are many ways to start locally among friends. Especially if you have a few geeks in the community who can take care of it. The problem is a lot of geeks are still wedded to the old model, were taught this is the way it's done. We're in a situation it's as if the plumber is running the kitchen.
Chris Mitchell: I think a lot of people are worried about reliability. I think they're afraid that if they just go around and set up a few things it's not going to be as good as if you have union labor and a call center and all of these other components that go with the networks we're used to.
Bob Frankston: That's going to start to happen, but it's like sidewalks. You decide how much effort you want to put into maintaining it. There are people, companies, remember corporations all have their internal networks. They hire people to do it. You can hire those same people to give you local connectivity. If you're worried, you don't have to get rid of the old phone lines, whatever, right away. You can be cautious if you want to. Remember, the phone network is not all that reliable. We tend to ignore the failures because we don't expect, like the Nine Eleven emergency. You cut one wire, the emergency system is out. It's one hundred percent reliable until it gets zero percent reliable. Same way, you remember when early cell phones were very staticky and everything?
Chris Mitchell: Yeah, well we still have dropped calls regularly.
Bob Frankston: It's not as often, but they were so valuable we worked around them. If you can deal with failures, you know it's like, "I'm not going to do this unless you can guarantee there'll be no storms." The more you're resilient, the more opportune it can get. Skype is a great example. With Skype, because they make no promises, a video works, you can use it, we're on video now. I'm staring at you. The regular phone network can't do it because they can't promise anything, so they've got to limit you strictly in order to only do what they can promise.
Chris Mitchell: Not just that but we often prefer Skype because the quality is so much higher than we get over the telephone lines.
Bob Frankston: It can be. Sometimes there'll be a glitch. If you can live with that once in awhile you get enormous benefit. If you're really worried about the future, why don't you put all your income into insurance? You'll starve. Remember the downside is not that bad. I mean even cable goes out. I've heard rumors, there've been people who've survived without TV for an evening.
Chris Mitchell: Not on football days, but yes.
Bob Frankston: If you really care about football you get a back-up system. You get satellite plus cable plus the internet just to be safe.
Chris Mitchell: You have to live within a block of a bar.
Bob Frankston: Right, or else you just drive to, well you might not even make it to the game. Driving to the game is really dangerous.
Chris Mitchell: This has been very helpful. We'll put in our notes and in the show the link to your site where you've given a lot of talks, you've given a lot of papers, but I think that fundamentally what the first thing needs to happen is that people need to understand that the internet is somewhat of a chaotic environment. It's not nearly as controlled as we imagine. We can make investments that will work very well because of that.
Bob Frankston: Let me put it simply: everything's chaotic. We just see the illusion. It's amazing what you can do with a coat of paint to make everything smooth. The real idea, the internet is what we do. The internet is created by what we do, and that's what's important. We're in a state, the early days we just did it ourselves, kids in school and things. It's become neatly packaged and it looks really fancy, but ultimately it's the very simplest thing. We have to see past all the hype to recognize the internet is actually very simple and it's something that people can understand and do themselves. If you're worried, sort of like your home network, what I started doing in 1995, nobody believed people could operate their home network. Most people do it. You know, if it's a problem, you can ask your friend, you can call Geek Squad, you can get help. Most people these days just put a Wi-Fi box and they connect it. That is the internet. That's the illusion. That is more the internet than going out to websites in a way.
Chris Mitchell: I really appreciate our conversation and I would like to have you back on in the future to follow up a little bit more. I think we just need to keep reintroducing people to these ideas until they start to grasp what's really possible because of our modern technology.
Bob Frankston: I'm very interested in the questions your listeners have.
Chris Mitchell: Okay, well thank you so much.
Bob Frankston: Okay glad to talk to you.
Chris Mitchell: Take care.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Bob Frankston. You can find Bob's website at Frankston dot com. At his website, Bob shares his expertise and his extensive library of articles and commentary. If you have any questions or comments, please send us a note. Email us at podcast at MuniNetworks.org. Our handle on Twitter is @CommunityNets. This show was released on September twenty-sixth two thousand twelve. Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions licensed using Creative Commons. The song is called "Spellbound."