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Special report: Why ISPs need to be thinking more about the future

Tom Cheesewright, Founder, Book of the Future

Tom Cheesewright, Founder, Book of the Future

Does the broadband industry need a reality check?

Applied futurist Tom Cheesewright thinks… it might. Weeks after chairing a discussion concerning net freedom on Day 3 of the Broadband World Forum 2014 – with a panel including BitTorrent’s Eric Klinke (and others leading reps from “the internet’s far left”) – Cheesewright still sounds slightly stunned by the lack of audience participation after the discussion

“Fortunately for the broadband industry, the guys behind BitTorrent are very well behaved and very well meaning,” he explains. “They understand they operate as part of an ecosystem, and that allowing their users to completely trash the networks wouldn’t do anyone any favours. But you’ve got to look at the proportion of traffic that things like BitTorrent account for: I was expecting much more robust questioning of Eric Klinke from an audience of service providers.”

If everything hinged on this detail alone, of course, there would be nothing to discuss. But Cheesewright sees it as consistent with a prevailing, and dangerous, short-sightedness…

“You’ve got to imagine that we’re going towards the position where the vast majority of consumed content is over the internet, and the vast majority of the supply of that content is not by the same people that sell you your connection.”

Of course Cheesewright is a futurist, and futurists tend to believe that everybody should by thinking a lot more about the future (or commissioning them to do it for them!). He’s far from the only person thinking in these terms, however.

“If you go and talk to someone like Martin Geddes and others of his ilk they will seriously question the long-term economics for the supply of internet services and broadband services,” he points out. “The trend for price has only gone in one direction, yet look at the increase in speeds and the increase in the type of data that consumers are pulling down. Ten years ago broadband was about getting a web page quicker, whereas now it’s absolutely about whether you get jitter on your video or whether your voice over IP call is clear.”

Service providers, he points out, should be more focussed on the economic implications of this transformation. “You probably won’t own the added value service that people are buying. You either have to find a way to be the person who sells those services and makes money out of those services, or you have to be running a very lean, tight ship that makes a margin out of selling what has always been known as a dumb pipe.”

Sat alongside Eric Klinke on Cheesewright’s aforementioned net freedom panel was the Tor Project’s Andrew Lewman, a central protagonist in a distinct (but similarly significant) debate about the internet’s future — privacy.

Cheesewright interpreted the audience’s silence on this issue as another instance of denial.

“In an ideal world, the service providers’ only motivation for examining a customer’s traffic would be commercial… I’m sure what none of them want to do is store large amounts of metadata about their customers’ communications and the websites that their customers are accessing, because it’s an expense, and it’s an imposition on their customers that doesn’t do their relationship with them any favours.”

Increasingly, however, this is precisely what governments all over the world are expecting ISPs to do. “People all moan about VAT, and how governments turn small businesses into tax collectors. Well, this is governments turning service providers into extensions of the law enforcement services, and that’s a really odd position to be in for a commercial organisation that’s trying to do its best for its customers.”

If a dangerous short-sightedness is loose in the industry, what does Cheesewright think the cause of it could be?

“The service providers are so engaged with the very short term issues that they’re missing some of the exponential factors. At the moment they’re very focussed on price and performance competition against others in their domestic markets. They’re focussed on creating triple play propositions that consumers find appealing…”

Meanwhile, the ground beneath everybody’s feet is shifting. Interesting food for thought for next year’s Broadband World Forum 2015….

 First published on the Broadband World Forum blog

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