Saturday, March 10, 2007

On Really Getting It

One of the most gratifying things about Thursday night's fiber forum was watching Lafayette's leaders (and a nice chunk of the community) exhibit all the signs that they really get it. They understand the potentials of the new technologies and have a good sense of how to milk the most out of them. This, my friends, is extraordinary--and vanishingly rare.

There is evidence that they clearly understand: 1) Great things are coming but what those great things are is unknown; 2) that the best thing to do encourage unknown great things is to be generous, and; 3) generosity needn't cost much or anything.

On Great Things are unknown:
At one point in the night Huval broke into an historical analogy. He said that he felt like his predecessor in in 1897 must have felt when electricity was being introduced. All the questions were about lighting and light bulbs: "What do we do when the light bulb breaks" and much concern was shown about the dangers of sticking a finger in the socket. Nobody knew about radio, or TV, or microwave ovens. The idea, of course, is that the hopes and anxieties of the initial stages of a new technology are incomplete and even misleading when viewed in retrospect. The conclusion is that we don't, can't, know all the great things that will result from ubiquitous really huge bandwidth. That's wise. To believe otherwise encourages folks to build elaborate edifices for a future that is never realized--and that has been the single greatest danger of "visionary" enterprises. But the danger in the wise recognition that you can't know the future in detail is that it might lead to inaction: there is a temptation to believe that you can't encourage that which you do not know. That's not true and these guys are NOT making that mistake.

On designing for unknown Great Things:
There is a way to design a system to encourage unknown great things: Where possible choose networks that leave open the most possibilities for users to "do things" with the network. And once you have such a networks don't put any limits on users that are not absolutely necessary. That can get technical pretty quickly. But the underlying attitude is not complicated: Be Generous. If you have a choice to make about network design: Choose the more generous network. If you have a choice to make about what a user is allowed to do with the network: Be Generous. That's a pretty simple and easy to enact principle.

Such a "generous" attitude was exhibited when Huval illustrated how he thinks Lafayette's network will be different from other networks. Verizon, which has a fiber to the home network with the attendant large capacity, is not offering much of that capacity to its public. It is choosing to merely compete with its cable opponents by offering a little more of the same for a little less. Verizon's attitude is that if it can't make a buck off it then it won't offer it--it won't give away anything, not even something which costs it nothing. Huval, pointing to Verizon said "our philosophy is going to be completely different" and that LUS will take the position of offering a much as possible as long as doing so doesn't create an obvious problem with the business plan. Both the decision to offer symmetrical bandwidth and to allow full intranet bandwidth between customers show what decisions result when you take a generous position.

On the idea that generousity can be cheap:
Given generous upfront decisions about the intial design of the network features like symmetrical speeds and full intranet speeds will be very cheap to provide in light of the huge excess capacity the network will have. Making the decision to be generous need not be expensive. This point was made during the discussion Thursday. One man voiced concerns that all the nifty ideas that had been suggested would be expensive and that only some of them could be chosen. Huval seemed genuinely puzzled as he responded that, actually, very few would cost anything. In that he was right...but his point was that he was inclined to do as much of it as he could in that case.

So these guys get it: Generosity pays dividends. We've always known this, of course, but it is interesting to find the principle showing up so vividly in the esotoric world fiber-optic networks.

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