Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thoughts on Killer Apps and Community

I've been chewing over an informal speech/meeting with Geoff Daily of KillerApp Monday evening from which I came away pretty impressed. He was speaking on what drives broadband usage—especially usage of high-capacity fiber networks. Daily actually gets it—he's not so distracted by the technology itself that he doesn't see that something more is necessary to create real change.

Daily was in town at the behest of Abigail Ransonet (aka fiberina and mistress of Abacus Marketing) who is hosting him here. Geoff, who is "on tour" of communities which have significant fiber to the home networks, is visiting Lafayette with the dual purpose of seeing what we are doing (or planning to do) with our fiber and informing us about what others have done.

What impressed me was that Geoff didn't succumb to the implications of the name of the business for which he works—nor the mindset that is so popular that the name was an obvious choice for a business focused on broadband. He doesn't think there is going to be a "KillerApp" that drives full utilization of fiber networks and leads to broadband utopia.

What Daily pointed out Monday was that most of the applications that people expect will drive broadband usage already exist. Some of them don't really require big broadband if only a few people are using them—and only a few people are. Those that do require a big pipe don't appear to be widely adopted where the bandwidth is available. The missing element is adoption. Waiting for "the killer app" is just a way of putting off the real works: preparing the community to make use of the many advantages which fiber's big bandwidth makes available.

Without community education—and providing a way for that education to occur—networks may be fiscally successful. But they will not realize the dreams of their advocates to provide a foundation for accelerated growth, equity, and a markedly better quality of life for citizens.

The "build it and they will come" assumption is insufficient to those goals. Building a community-owned fiber network is, I believe, a necessary precondition realize such dreams. Privately-owned networks will never be motivated to serve the needs of the community except indirectly. If any community hopes to get ahead of the curve or to simply control its own destiny it must own its own tools. That's true for carpenters and that's true for cities. Lafayette did the right thing in building its own network. But Geoff Daily reminds us that this is only the beginning. (Check out his blog at KillerApp for relevant ideas.)

Daily pointed to the Utopia project in Utah as one that appeared to him to be built on "build it and they will come" assumption. In truth, as Daily probably realizes, this attitude was pretty much forced on them by their statehouse: the state of Utah would only allow local communities to build the networks the private providers refused to build if they leased them out to private service providers. In consequence the Utopia project is not, and cannot be, "utopian" in any real sense. The citizens who own and will have taken the risk in providing the network will find themselves with services that are typical of services offered by any private network since what motivates their providers will be no different from what motivates anyone else's.

That is better than not having such services at all, I'll grant, but that is not what Lafayette voted for—we voted for the dream.

One point was unmistakable: Geoff Daily wants that dream too. He wants to see the technology lead to better things for communities and their residents. That leads him to think that we need a visionary success in at least one community to kickstart nation-wide usage. The country needs to see a place where an advanced network kicks off accelerates growth, decreases inequality, and results in a markedly better quality of life for all its citizens.

I nominate Lafayette.

But, as Geoff's presentation and the following discussion made clear, it won't happen by itself. The the only way that will happen is if LCG, LUS, and the community decide to make it happen.

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