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Friday, July 12, 2013

Broadband, Internet, Voice, Telephony, Messaging etc: Words & semantic matter

I had two conversations about fax machines and security-alarms yesterday.

Very 1980s, you might think. Yet both cropped up in conversations about FTTH, IP networks and the future of communications. My two discussions were with colleagues and peers Benoit Felten and Martin Geddes.

The conversations highlighted the importance of a few words that we use in the telecoms industry without really thinking what they mean properly. "Phone lines", for example, are not just used to make phone calls. Obviously they are used for DSL too (more on broadband below), but also fax machines, alarm systems, point-of-sale terminals, elevator emergency phones and all sorts of other things.

Historically yes, phone calls have been the main use of narrowband phone lines. But as telephony revenues fall ever lower, and we start to look at IP replacements via fibre or perhaps wireless, a bunch of other issues start to become disproportionately important.

"Oh, we can run fax over IP if it's really needed". Yes, true - but what about fire alarms & the elevators? Even if those systems can be reworked over IP, what is the cost of switchover? How much does a "truck roll" for the safety certification guy from Otis cost?

So it's worth being careful about talking about switching off the "phone" network, as it's not just about phones.

Similarly, I've often drawn a distinction between "voice" and "telephony". Apart from a little bit of push-to-talk, and maybe conferencing, telcos only do the latter. They don't have "voice" revenues, they have "telephony" revenues. There's a broad and growing set of voice communications models and applications that are nothing to do with phone calls. However, few executives - or regulators or investors - have quite woken up to this yet. Given the likely downward trajectory of telephone revenues (including mobile calls) over the next few years, this is going to become suddenly important.

The ways we manage, record, bill, present, regulate, intercept non-telephony voice is currently off of most peoples' radar screens. Do we need 911 and lawful-interception for baby monitors, business "hoot'n'holler" intercoms, networked karaoke or in-game chat? Do we count baby gurgles and songs in minutes and report the stats? Will PRISM have to listen to the snores of someone under remote-diagnosis for sleep apnea?

Broadband vs Internet is another critical semantic distinction. Internet access is just a very specific - albeit special - application of broadband access networks. For consumers, broadband today often also has carrier VoIP and IPTV delivered alongside Internet access, and in future we may get various digital lifestyle services, remote metering and so forth delivered, which do not transit the public Internet. This has implications for both how we quantify economic costs and benefits, but also how rules such as Network Neutrality get applied. Sloppy use of the wrong terminology can lead to poor investment and regulatory decisions.

The Internet/Web distinction is well known but also widely overlooked.

"Messaging" is a fairly nebulous concept too, as I've discussed before.

Lastly, we have "mobile" which can refer to mobile networks (3G/4G cellular vs. WiFi), mobile devices (smartphones yes... but are tablets "mobile"?) or mobile users (moving about vs. nomadic vs. stationary). Whenever you see stats claiming "X% of web use / data traffic / Internet users is mobile", you can guarantee that there's no clear definition. Frequently, people will pick whichever definition gives them the largest number to try to make their point stronger. The argument that a WiFi-only tablet that never leaves the sofa - never mind leaving the house - contributes to "mobile web advertising" is somehow "mobile" is ridiculous.

Mobile vs. Wireless is another troublesome one, especially as the telecom industry has historically designed complex and expensive networks specifically to meet the needs of people "moving about", but then happily sold most of their services - and gained most of their revenues - from people who are wirelessly-connected but stationary. That was fine in the past, but is starting to be a questionable assumption as perfectly-good wireless networks start to become available for free as an "amenity" rather than a "service".

We've also got "application" which can means 100 different things depending on who you're speaking to. User vs. subscriber is good one too.

Overall, I think it is incumbent on all of us to become much less sloppy with our telecom semantics. In the past, the world was simpler and we could get away with saying "voice" when we meant "telephony". Lobbyists could conflate Internet and Broadband, twisting words to hide flawed arguments against Neutrality.

But now, the industry is facing laser-like challenges, as well as narrow and well-defined opportunities. Picking the wrong words, making flawed generalisations and comparisons, confusing subsets and supersets - all these will lead to poor decision-making and flawed analysis.

Think twice before you open your mouth....and correct other peoples' sloppiness and push them for definitions of what they mean.

1 comment:

Mahendran said...
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