Communications change we can believe in?

Love him or hate him, you’ve got to respect a guy who won’t give up his BlackBerry.

I’m talking about our just-sworn-in President Obama, who famously refuses to give up his BlackBerry (rumors of his doing so are apparently greatly exaggerated). Seems he’d rather risk having his private noodlings publicly immortalized than disconnect from the world.

I know how he feels (hey, I use Google’s search engine, which stores my private information for all eternity). So the good news is that for the first time ever, we’ve got someone in the White House who understands, at a personal level, how communications technologies have changed the way we live.

Moreover, as Network World reporter Brad Reed has amply documented, President Obama has made communications infrastructure a focus of his presidency. Net neutrality and universal broadband are clearly front-and-center on his agenda — in fact, this may be the first inauguration speech that specifically called out universal broadband.

So, does all this add up to — I have to say it — communications change we can believe in? As a previous president might have said, it depends on what the meaning of “change” is. One of the strongest themes of the inaugural speech was that decisions in the present should be grounded in a thorough understanding of the past.

So let’s cast a quick look backwards. The Internet may be one of the most successful public-private experiments ever conducted: it was conceived by academic researchers, midwifed by government research funding, and nurtured by the free market. That is, academic researchers, availing themselves of government funding, created the Internet, and during the 1990s it was successfully transitioned to the free market, becoming one of the most powerful economic engines in the world.

Yet — as I’ve discussed here and elsewhere — we may have reached the limits of the Internet’s ability to scale. The infrastructure is becoming ever-more-fragile, and the architecture has imposed limitations on features like multi-homing and mobility. Carriers and content providers are increasingly flattening and fragmenting the ‘Net, turning it into a series of loosely coupled proprietary networks (often carrying proprietary content) rather than a seamless any-to-any mesh. As my fellow Network World columnists Steve Taylor and Jim Metzler have pointed out, the ‘Net is in serious need of an overhaul.

So what does “change” mean in this scenario? First off, I’d like to see some real investment, not necessarily in laws and regulations, but in the kind of research and development that brought us the ‘Net in the first place.

As for universal broadband — more and better access is good, but we have to figure out how to pay for it. The current approach to universal service — taxing “rich” telecom customers to pay for “poor” ones — is an unholy mess. (Remember the Mafia scam?) We’d be better off implementing a simple tax on everybody, if that’s really what people want.

So what change do we need? To paraphrase our new president, it’s all about change that works — not change that gums up the works. That’s something we can all believe in.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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