Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the Episode 78 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Bob Frankston on the definition of the Internet and how it affects our limits and expectations. Listen to this episode here.
Bob Frankston: The Internet is created by what we do. And that's what's important.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, brought to you by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
We decided this week was a good opportunity to bring you an encore performance of one of our earlier podcasts. In September of 2012, Chris spoke with Bob Frankston. Bob's been a leading voice in the computer and telecommunications world for over 50 years. In this interview, Bob and Chris talk a little about the concept of building networks that allow ubiquitous access, and the deeper definition of the Internet. How we define the Internet has come to dictate our limits and our expectations. We've trimmed the interview down, so you can get back to your hot cocoa. We encourage you to go to episode 14, however, of the Broadband Bits Podcast for the entire discussion.
Chris Mitchell: Bob Frankston, thank you for joining us on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.
Bob Frankston: Thank you for asking me.
Chris: One of the things that I thought you could help us understand is, when we talk about the Internet, and we talk about our communications -- um, our telecommunications -- we often think about it in terms of going through a major corporation or through a local government. And you think about how we can connect using the Internet differently. Can you walk me through that?
Bob: Any new technology is viewed in terms of the old. Cars were originally horseless carriages. You know, when trains switched to diesel, we had all the towers -- people kept thinking of things the same way. So we -- metaphors for the Internet go back to the telegraph lines. There's another tradition that occurred totally independently when we just -- we wanted to connect our computers. We just used whatever -- copper, radio, wires -- to exchange packets. And if a packet got lost, you retransmitted. There's no network as such.
So in that, that's more like a sidewalk. You want to get someplace, you can walk, take a path. You don't even need sidewalks. They just make it easier. So the Internet is really about the ability to exchange -- convert everything to digital and exchange bits.
You know, if you think back to the days of the telegraph, you couldn't do that. You had to explain to somebody what the text was in 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.
Bob: So we have to start thinking of the Internet -- as I said earlier, we just use whatever facilities to exchange packets. But it's really the opportunity to become stakeholders. That instead of relying on a telegraph operator to carry our messages, we can just talk to each other locally. If we -- you know, you think of a tin can with strings, except we can just, you know, extend the strings ourselves electronically. We don't need somebody in the middle.
Bob: And once you understand that, all we need -- you know, again, to continue the sidewalk analogy -- is to hire somebody to basically help keep the bits flowing inside your house. And what I did at Microsoft -- the way I say it now -- I gave people control of the wires in their house, so they can use it for networking, unlike the original plan, where you'd have to pay each month for each PC. And, to make the point even more, if you wanted an IP printer, which means an Internet printer, which is commonly now -- you can just put the printer on the network in your house and connect to it.
But the reak way to think about the -- by the way, the hard part for me as I talk about this is language, because we have a whole language which ASSUMES that telecommunications is a service, that there is a physical thing called the Internet.
Bob: And there is no. The Internet is the way we use the available facilities.
Chris: Right. We think of it, I think, as very deterministic. And reality is, the Internet is sort of this -- I think a "cloud" is probably the right analogy. And things can bounce around until they get where they're going. Am I missing -- am I not understanding this correctly?
Bob: Well, it's actually much simpler than that.
Bob: Because people's analogy -- you know, at first, the word "cloud" is very confusing to people...
Bob: What is a cloud? You know, when it rains, is that a problem in the cloud? And yet they worry about running out of the Internet, as if -- because the Internet comes over wires, just like electricity.
Bob: But it's very different. We use the wires to exchange bits. It's sort of like you're worrying about running out of the letter E.
Bob: So think of the Internet as the alphabet. It's the way we use paper to communicate. It's not the paper itself. So -- and that's what makes it so hard to talk about -- because you can't point to say, that's the Internet. When you access the Internet, it's a shorthand for saying, we each connect to something for our way. We're not actually access the Internet.
Bob: And all these words -- one example I use in a talk I gave is Pandora is radio. So, you know, you're technical. So, you think of a radio as a transmitter and all the wires. But because, you know, almost a century ago, the business model of radio was broadcast model -- language, you confuse the term. So, I ask for radio now, even at a consumer electronics store, everybody gives me a radio station.
Bob: It's hard to get to the technology. So we have to sort of -- language gets in our way. So we need to be very careful. So the way I look at it is -- the term I use is about radical simplicity.
So 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 in an electrician. Punch holes in a wall, run a wire.
Bob: But, you know, right now I can buy a light which has a radio in it for $30 -- buy just a switch, and all I do is, I say, that switch sends a message to that light bulb. I don't -- I could then change the rules. It's much simpler. I don't have anything, you know, complicated to do. Instead, radical simplicity. Now, imagine you take that switch now, you put it in your pocket, you fly to China, it'll still turn on the same light.
Bob: That's the theory. The problem is, the Internet as we have it now is still a prototype. And, unfortunately, one of the byproducts of isolating the home is you can't -- with the current protocols -- you can't get to that light bulb. I -- you need to decide if you're allowed to get to that light bulb. But you don't want to say you have no choice. And a good example of it I like is, the Internet technologies -- you want to be careful -- allows it to do remarkable things. If you ever watch a recent nature show, you'll see the lions in the Serengeti have collars now.
Bob: They -- each one has a cellular phone account and a GPS. It's remarkable. But the Maasai Warriors of the same area can't connect their cows...
Bob: ... because of the billing problem. It's -- 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 can now do simple things. So imagine if farmers can track cows. I mean, it won't be romantic. Can you imagine the new western, and the cowboys are all around the fire looking at their tablets, tracking the cows? And that's remarkably easy to do, IF they're stakeholders and they own the infrastructure. It's very hard to do if they're shareholders.
So 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, they we're beholden to shareholders, and we can only do things that benefit them, not what benefits us.
Chris: 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: It depends on the corporations.
Bob: There are a lot -- There are a lot of corporations to take over the sidewalk ** model. You can hire people that would be glad to work for you and pave the sidewalks. So, it's not whether it's a corporation. It's not whether it's public or private. It's who the stakeholders -- So if a city, you know, doesn't really own the sidewalk, it's just part of the city. But people get together, either through, say, a local cooperative or through a city government to hire people to do the pavement.
Bob: So it's still a business model, it's just one that aligns incentives.
Chris: With no sort of proven funding model. We're not seeing, I think, a lot of interests from, in 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. And so, I'm curious. You know, 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 to the wider world, that just, sort of, however we get off of our own local network, we do? Is that a first step?
Bob: Yes. It makes a lot of sense. But overall, what you need to do is get dense geographic coverage. In other words, forget the -- everybody thinks the Internet is about reaching things very far away.
Bob: It's really about connecting things locally, like within a farm, or among farms. You know, imagine you can subscribe to a service that can, say, monitor crops for you or something.
Bob: So you want to be able to then own connectivity locally. So you can then do it many ways. So, the simplest way is to have sort of a coop, and, you know, ** apartment houses, maybe you could do it in the building. And you all pool your resources and you buy a common connection.
Bob: And you get remarkable economies of scale. So that's a very smooth model, and it starts to expand out. And you're right, cities are going to be risk-averse for many reasons. But it's -- but remember, cities -- especially small ones -- are just the people. This is a positive sense of being...
Bob: You know. And if enough citizens realize -- Just like sewers -- at some point, you know, you start out with cesspools.
Bob: At some point, everybody gets together, you know, we should get sewers. So, it's going to be a ** process. You know, if somebody just came in, you know, from out of town and said, you should ** sewers, it will be rejected. Why do we need that? But at some point, houses get dense enough, and then you switch the model. So, you're right. You start out very locally. You own your common connectivity. You can -- one way to do it is to pool your resources.
You can also share a connection. I mean, if you really want to -- if it's about saving money, you can get access points, like the one I have, which allow five different local networks as well as open access.
Bob: So, there are many ways to start locally among friends. And, you know, especially, you know, a few geeks in the community, ...
Chris: Well, 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 sort of union labor and a call center and all of these other components that go with the networks we're used to.
Bob: Well, that's going to start to happen. If you -- but it's like a sidewalk. You decide how much effort you want to put into maintaining it. So, there are people, companies, I mean -- remember, corporations all have their own internal networks. They hire people to do it. You can hire those same people to give you local connectivity. And if you're worried, you don't have to get of their old, you know, phone wires or whatever right away.
Bob: You know, you can be cautious if you want to. But, remember, the phone network is not all that reliable. We tend to ignore the failures, because we don't expect -- like the 9/11 emergency.
Bob: You cut one wire -- the emergency system is out.
Bob: It's 100% reliable until it gets 0% reliable. And, you know, the same way -- remember when early cell phones were very staticky and everything?
Chris: Yeah, well, we still have dropped calls regularly.
Bob: Well, we do. It's not as often. But then it's so valuable, we worked around them. So, if you could deal with failures -- You know, it's like a farmer: I'm not going to do this unless you guarantee there are going to be no storms.
Bob: The more you are resilient, the more opportunity you can get. You know, remember, the down side is not that bad. You know? I mean, even cable goes out.
Bob: And I've heard rumors, there have been people who have survived without TV for an evening.
Chris: [laughs] Not on football days, but -- yes.
Bob: Yes. ** about football, you've got a backup system. You've got satellite plus cable plus the Internet, just to be safe.
Chris: Right. And you have to live within a block of a bar.
Bob: Right. Or else, you just drive to the -- well, you might not even make it to the game. That's really -- driving to the game is really dangerous.
Chris: Fundamentally, what -- the first thing that 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. And that we can make investments that will work very well, because of that.
Bob: Let me put it simply. Everything's chaotic. We just see the illusion. It's amazing what we con do with a coat of paint to make everything seem -- But 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 stage -- I mean, the early days, we just did it ourselves, as kids in school and things. It's become neatly packaged. It looks really fancy. But ultimately, it's the very simplest thing. And we have to sort of see past all the hype to recognize, the Internet is actually very simple, and it's something people can understand, and do themselves.
Chris: OK. Well, thank you so much.
Bob: OK. Glad to talk to you.
Chris: Take care.
Lisa: Bob makes his writings available at frankston.com . Be sure to check those out. We hope you enjoyed this journey back in time, and hopefully, if you missed the first airing of our discussion with Bob, this abridged version will tempt you to go back and listen to the extended version.
E-mail us with questions or ideas for the show. You can write to firstname.lastname@example.org . We're on Twitter. We are @communitynets . Follow us for up-to-date developments in telecommunications. This show was released on December 24th, 2013. Thank you to the group Haggard Beat for their song, "Lazlo," licensed using Creative Commons. Thank you again for listening, and we wish you a happy holidays.