Malcolm Matson on Future Telecom Infrastructure

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Last Sunday I had the pleasure having a Sunday interview via Skype with Malcolm Matson.

You can download it as a 96kbps MP3 here (46 meg, 67 minutes).

Additionally the full transcript is below. To distinguish between us I've indented Malcolm.

(It's interesting to compare what Brough Turner had to say at eComm 2008, the audio of which can be found here)


You have solid telecom credentials, would you agree?  There you go.  There's an easy first question, yes or no? [laughter]

Well, if you ask an average citizen of the street, he would say yes.  If you ask a member of the elite telco community, they would say, "No, this guy is an absolute heretic".  In fact, I'm an entrepreneur.  I grew up in the fast-moving consumer goods industry, FMCG.  It was purely sort of an accident that in 1982, I think it was, in the U.K., and it was information technology.  I was able to have an opportunity to sort of tinker and think about what I like to talk about as FMCI, fast-moving consumer information. 

That brought me into the sort of telecom sector and domain, but I came to it with the innocence and ignorance of a child, which I believe has been the greatest strength.  Because everybody else in the industry had grown up with and was deeply meshed and trapped by the sort of dogma and conventional wisdom, which I think that is still very largely at play and certainly haunts the public policy makers and regulators.  So, I've thought radically but I think I've thought right over the last twenty-five years [laughter]. 

So, you're still being a radical, then?

Yes, but the difference is that twenty-five years ago I was a radical and a heretic.  I shall never forget once, speaking on a conference.  The president of Alcatel, as I'm doing now, wearing headphones to have an interpreter tell him what I was saying, this man - he'd never seen this guy Matson standing on the podium.  When I finished, he banged the table and said, "The conference organizers should be ashamed because of having people like this speaking at conferences like this, if they had their way, they will ruin our industry". 

It's never been my aim to ruin the telecom's industry, but on the other hand, I think history should teach us that it's very dangerous and not in the interest of our society if we are dedicated to preserving an industry.  Where would we be today if we had been absolutely hell bent on preserving the typewriter industry or the canal industry, or the horse and buggy industry?  Progress is always as a result of unforeseen disruptive technology that is the savior for many people, opens the eyes, and creates new industries, but it also creates the death of others. 

So, do you think VoIP is a new, exciting industry [tongue-in-cheek]?

[Laughs] We all like to put these tags on things, but back in 1982, 1983, as a result of thinking from first principles, I began to realize that anything - voice, video, Mozart's 40th Symphony, or a fifty-trillion dollar bond note could be communicated, stored, and manipulated as a string of ones and naughts.  From the very beginning, I couldn't see that either regulating or dealing with content, dependent on how those ones and naughts decoded, regulating and dealing with them separately, depending on whether it decoded as voice or as video.  It just didn't make sense to me. 

Yet, because the preceding industries of television, radio, telephony were all discreet analog industries and all had, even by the 1980's, gotten very strong voices and lobbying voices, were able to persuade politicians to create public policy and regulation, as it were, to perpetuate and extend their shelf life against their view of the world.

Their view of the world - I mean, the telephone company's view of the world - telephony was somehow different from anything else.  It's just bits, as far as I'm concerned.  You know, the fact that we're all now talking about VoIP - they're bits, I couldn't care less.  I don't see VoIP as anything different to anybody else, and neither does anybody else, interestingly, other than the telcos, who have built a business model around the old notion of telephony and the old business models that underpin telephony, and are getting killed.

It was just that a lot of people still seem to view VoIP, using your canal analogy, still view it as the train industry.  I can't help but view plain VoIP as the canal industry.  You know, some people are still heralding VoIP as the new thing. 

If you're thinking about voice, I personally believe that voice is one element, component, or facet that can be present in a communication or conversation between two people.  But, I suspect that more and more conversations will not be simply voice conversations.  They will be voice underpinning or enriching other content that we share at the same time.  As I say, I think VoIP is an understandable expression but it's an obsession that has risen up to be a topical issue because it is basically eating the telcos' lunch.

Back to the telecom credential thing, you were the founder of Colt Telecom, were you not?


So, come on, Malcolm, is that not fairly prestigious?

Lee, you are talking to the founder of the highest capitalized loss-making company, probably in the history of mankind.  [Laughter]

Exactly, so Colt was fantastic? [Laughter]

No, it wasn't fantastic.  I would say it wasn't.  It grew to be capitalized on the London Stock Market and I don't know how many billion pounds.  I think at the height, in 1999, it was the fifth largest company on the London Stock Exchange, but the fifth largest company without ever making any profit. 

Did you sell high?

I sold very early on.  Let me tell you the story about Colt.  Basically, Colt was the spark of imagination that I had after I began to understand what was happening with this digital revolution.  I formed Colt in conjunction with the Corporation of London, which is the city council and municipality. 

Bear in mind that the Corporation of London covers not the whole of London, but the financial sector of London.  The purpose behind Colt, the vision behind Colt was that it should be a dark fiber network serving this area, which was the financial sector.  I had to have an apartment there, but there are only ten thousand people who live there.  Most of the people inside this small square mile are very sophisticated, global financial institutions and banks. 

Under the unique legislation in the U.K., which persisted for ten years, thanks to the foresight and brilliance of Margaret Thatcher, but actually got neutered because the politicians took their eyes off it and BT kept its eyes on it.  It was to be a dark fiber network.

The business model I put together was that Colt should invest in putting in dark fiber to these buildings, period.  City Bank, or Daiwa Bank, or Deutsche Bank, into whose building the fiber went, could choose to use that fiber either to send bits to other banks in and around the city or to have their global network provider, B.T or AT&T, or whoever it is, to manage the active layer on that dark fiber. 

The business model was to be a passive piece of real estate.  It looked extremely attractive and like an extremely interesting business.  It was to be low risk, low return.  This wasn't a sexy, high return business.  This was a boring utility piece of real estate.

I couldn't get it funded and eventually went back to Harvard Business School, where I did my MBA.  I went into the Baker Library, did a bit of digging around, and found that there was a company called Boston Teleport, which was doing something a little bit similar.  I spoke to the guy who running it, Paul Chisholm, and he said, "We have two shareholders, Merrill Lynch and Fidelity Capital". 

Within two or three weeks, I was sitting down face-to-face, on the opposite side of the table with Ned Johnson, III, who is one of the richest men in America, whose father founded Fidelity.  He was interested in this.  I was sketching out on the back of a napkin what I was planning to do.  He said, "How much do you need?"  I said, "We're showing thirty million pounds for the first...," and he said, "You've got it".  [Laughs]

I was elated.  I got on a plane, flew back to London.  It reminded me of the time when Alexander Graham Bell went to Western Union and said, "Hey, I've got this thing called the telephone.  Would you like to use it," and they said, "No, it doesn't really fit with our business plan".  He wandered off and bumped into J.P. Morgan.  I thought, "Gosh, this is my J.P. Morgan moment.  This is it, wonderful.  I will come back, we'll build Colt, and it will be demonstrated to the world that in the new world you don't have a vertically integrated service-provider model.  You have the bottom passive layer.  You have a contract to somebody to light it in the middle and all the applications run on the top of it".  This is basically the model of the Internet.

Anyway, within two months he called me back to Boston and said, "I want to introduce you to Jim Hines".  Jim Hines was a big, bruising, ex-Vice President of AT&T, who immediately came and said, "What the heck do we want to be a boring utility for?  Crickey, all the value is at the top of this in offering services". 

I argued with him and said, "That's crazy because as soon as you start offering services you're going to be competing with your customers".  I couldn't persuade him so I exercised a put option.  I got out reasonably well.  I probably made a higher return on the investment than anybody else ever has.  I had to wait for ten years and watch this share price - it was subsequently IPO'd.  I watched the share price go through the roof, all the time predicting that it was heading for disaster.  I can't show it to you now, but I have this lovely article from the front page of the London Times, saying, "Colt's founder forecasts disaster for this company," literally within days of the 1999 crash. [Laughs]  Within days, the whole dot com meltdown had impacted the telcos and so forth.

Yes, I suppose in a sense, everybody looks and says, "Malcolm is the founder of Colt," and they see the fact that this company...

Colt was seen as one of the first new players, a great disrupter, and it was the first company to lay pan-European fiber.

It was the first all-fiber network in Europe, absolutely. [Laughs]  What it did was blindly use the old business model.  If I could buy back Colt now, I would do and I would take it apart and it would be a much more profitable and interesting business.  I forecast that this was going the wrong way, and it still is going the wrong way.  Colt is still a basket-case company.  I mean, it's going to have real problems.

What you have is the infrastructure; the passive layer is stuff that has a twenty year or twenty-five year life cycle.  There isn't a lot of technology change in ducts.  There is not a lot of technology change in fiber.  The technology change and advance is in terms of the active equipment that you hang on the fiber. 

So, if you stay at that bottom level there, it's a very high capital investment but it's a very low return.  As I say, it's the same principle as in the real estate business.  Just because land securities or a major property developer can finance the building of a shopping mall, he doesn't say to himself, "Oh gosh, now why don't I put my Sock Shop in there, and my own coffee shop in there".  [Laughter] That's [14:53.8 over speak] retails in there separately.  They can take the risk of the fads and fashions of content. 

I like that analogy.

It's interesting.  The time has come.  One of the problems, Lee, I've found that because the telco industry is probably the largest global cartel that mankind has ever known, it's not surprising if you're in the communications business, very early on the telephone companies around the world got together and said, "Hey, Mr. Foreigner, you lay the lines in your country.  I'll lay the lines in my country.  Let's not compete by laying lines in each other's country.  You hand me the calls halfway across the sea.  I'll hand you my calls halfway across the sea.  We'll charge an arm and a leg to the end users and then we'll get together twice a year in Geneva and we'll split the spoils".  That's basically, what was done. 

The accounting standard of rules for sharing the revenues from international traffic is a major issue that is hidden from most peoples' eyes.  For a lot of third world countries, it's the greatest source of foreign currency that they earn.

So, what we've seen over the years is governments listening to their telecom's operators because apart from anything else, they're a) major employers but b) they generate massive tax revenues.  Unfortunately, we've neutered the free advance of disruptive technology in the hands of end users.  Never try to, as it were, use public policy or regulation as the stimulus and the catalyst for innovation.  Just go out and do it.  Exemplars are what change the minds of politicians, ultimately.

I don't know whether you're aware of the railway having, one I constantly use,  if you look at railway history, the Stocktons of Darlington Railway in the U.K. was what...

I know nothing of the history of railway so please tell me.

It's what started it off.  Basically, railways were things on which little trucks ran, pulled by horses and donkeys.  They brought coal out of the coal mines on tracks.  That's what a railway was.  Suddenly, there was this great invention of the steam engine.

The conventional wisdom was why would you want to go five miles an hour?  You get the coal out of the mine.  Why would anybody want to go faster than five miles an hour?  It wasn't until the steam engine, until Stephenson created the Darlington Railway and put a few carriages on there, invited some MP's up and some entrepreneurs to sort of feel the wind in their hair that suddenly their imaginations started saying, "We could do..." 

The rest is history, as they say.  Whole new industries of shipbuilding, leisure, and tourism were created.  One of the biggest benefits of the railways was that in the U.K. the quality of the population's teeth were suddenly improved because fresh milk, with its calcium, was able to get to city centers in a way it could never have done if it was going by horse-drawn carriage.

There wasn't anybody sitting around in the office of rail regulation saying, "We need to deploy this because it's the solution to the dental problems of the nation".  This was an unforeseen, unimagined consequence.  I believe that's what we're being starved of at the moment, the unforeseen, unimaginable consequences of allowing high bandwidth, zero marginal cost, peer-to-peer connectivity in the local environment. 

Whether we like it or not, most of us live in physical cities, communities, villages, rural areas.  We live in towns.  Most of our lives are circumscribed by a rich network and matrix of communication as we love, live, leisure and learn in relationships, in the context of where we physically live.  When we can enrich those by all sorts of new, unimaginable peer-to-peer connectivity with high bandwidth...

So, we've kind of jumped from the founder of Colt Telecom to the amazing credentials.  Now you seem to be jumping to where your mind is nowadays.  That's another new world you're speaking about.  Is that correct?

No, it's not correct.  No. 

[Laughs] It's not correct?  You seem to be talking about not the big Internet, but doing stuff locally.

Absolutely, this is what Colt was to have been.  The whole point of Colt was to have been an open, local, public access network.  It was to provide a pipe, a big, fat, bit pipe into all the buildings in the city, and then to allow the people inside the buildings to use that pipe, to connect with whomever they wanted, whether it was directly, to the building next door, or to somebody on the other side of that city who was offering a service to connect you to the rest of the world, over the Internet. 

It's the same way, Lee, as your home or your office, you have an open access network.  You have a network, whether it's wireless or CAT5 cable, whereby the PC's and the printers and the hubs and so forth communicate with each other at the direction of you.  You can send stuff from one PC to another PC, to the printer, to the scanner, or wherever it is, as you like.  There is no charge for that.  It's not a service that's been provided to you by anybody.

I enjoy that in my home.  I enjoy that in my private domain.  I have my cell phone and my laptop and I can sync those.  There is nobody providing me a service to sync them.  I just actually have the two.  I own, finance, or borrow the cable, or I have access to a piece of license-exempt spectrum, 2.4 GHz, which allows these two to communicate with each other. 

When I get onto the Internet at the other end, once I'm on the Internet, we have exactly that environment of net neutrality.  By net neutrality, I think I mean what most people mean by it.  I mean it's a passive, open, unmetered connectivity.  It's a direct P2P connectivity anywhere across that domain, across the Internet.  It's a symmetrical connectivity on the Internet and the primary value of it resides with the people using it.

There are some big boys out there, like the telcos, who are desperately trying to change that.  They're trying to change it to get it into line with what persists still, in the final domain, which is the city or the local domain, the "local Net" as I call it.  Unfortunately, there we don't have a Net neutral environment.  We have a network that is closed, controlled, metered.  There is no local, P2P connectivity.  I can't send bits between my home, my hospital, or my school, or my neighbor, directly over infrastructure in the same way I can in my office.

yeah, but can I begin jumping in here just to clarify.  You can use the Internet to go where you wish to go.  You just said it was a passive infrastructure and that anybody can use it.  So, if you want to sync PC's at distance, just use the Internet?

Once you get onto it.  But, suppose I'm sitting in my home.  I'm an old person, a seventy-eight year old person. 

You're seventy eight, wow. [tongue-in-cheek]

If I was seventy-eight.

[Laughs] Wow, Malcolm, I didn't know you were that old.  [Laughter] Okay, just kidding around with you.

Suppose I'm an old-age pensioner, sitting in my home.  I want to have a high definition ability to chat with my doctor, my daughter, my church minister, or whoever it is.  I want to do it in real time and I don't want to have to be charged per minute by doing it.  I can't do that at the moment, because the only way I have connectivity is over an asymmetrical piece of copper.  Even if I wanted to connect over the Internet, there are potential latency problems that I may have.  In any case, why should bits that want to travel one hundred yards have to clog up the Internet?  That's half the problem.  If we can cache and keep, in the local domain in the same way that I do on my - thank goodness all the A4 pages I sent to my printer don't need to be sent over the Internet.  If we all had to do that, gosh, we'd be loading the Internet with even more capacity.  Why not keep; in the local domain, and a domain that is not an arbitrary one, it's a real one.... 

For example, let's take Amsterdam.  It's putting in an OPLAN, an open, public, local access network, into all four hundred thousand of its social housing units.  They reckon that they will have, immediately, a fifty million Euro plus saving each year.  Old people will be able to stay in their homes that much longer.  Why shouldn't they have the benefit of that?

What do you mean by stay in their homes a little bit longer?

At the moment, the only way an old person...

Internet shopping, or what do you mean?

No, no - care.  At the moment, the only way an old person...

Oh, stay in their own private home, instead of

Correct, before they need to go into care.

[Laughs] Okay, it's not Internet shopping.  We're stopping old people leaving their house.

[Laughter] No, sorry, it's just explained to me why everybody looks to me with a glazed look when I make that statement.  [Laughter] At the moment, you have these alarm systems and so forth that cost an arm and a leg per month to do.  It relies upon the person pressing the button saying, "I need help". 

Of course, this isn't a Big Brother thing; this is somebody who might want to do it.  Somebody can say, "I've got a problem," and have a face-to-face.  I think some of these Hewlett Packard and Cisco and others are beginning to demonstrate how video communication and conversation, if the bandwidth is there, can be very, very different to the old sort of video conferencing, out of sync and scraggy pictures we used to have a little while ago. 

If bits don't have to get onto the Internet, why clog up the Internet doing so?  The other thing, of course, is that if you have such a network, and this is the frightening thing from the telcos' point of view, at the moment, they operate in terms of the Internet connectivity on a divide and rule basis.  You're at number two Park Road.  "Mr. Dryburgh, we'll contract for your ADSL connectivity".  The next door will have a separate contract, and the next will have another contract, and so forth.  What if we were on this fiber bus, as a city or a community and there was a single terabyte fiber connectivity for the whole city, to the Internet?

Okay, but then this is what Amsterdam is doing, and France as well.  I mean, this is just community-owned fiber you're speaking about here.

I'm actually talking about - we'll come to that in a minute.  I'm talking about what happens if we have massive high bandwidth - what I'm basically saying is that the service provider model, as we know it, is dead.  There is no earthly reason why we should have ISP's or telcos, as we know them, in this digital world.

Moving onto the point that you just made, a point that I suppose over that last few years I've increasingly come to appreciate and believe, is that the fiber that serves a community or city, just as the fiber or coax that serves me in my home network, you really want to finance that in a way that aligns the owners' interests with the users. 

To that extent, I believe, and this is what I'm working with now, on cities that are saying, "Well, we don't want this to be state-owned, but we want it to be owned by a corporate vehicle that is not a conventional profit-making company, but is one whereby the primary value and benefit out of the investment goes to the users on it".  That could be by some community bond or by some cooperative ownership or a company like the Network Rail Company in the U.K., a not-for-profit company.

What you don't want is somebody owning the fiber who is trying to maximize the return on that investment.  To the extent that a city is reliant on that person, it's going to be less competitive, in the years ahead, with a city on the other side of the world that is trying to attract inward investment and e-knowledge workers and new entrepreneurial activity.  It will be more accessible because the bits are cheaper to go there because there is not a massive pricing of access based upon having to serve an independent shareholding group.  I'm not sure I've expressed that clearly.

What we do see in Sweden and other places are communities organizing themselves.  I think we're going to see the birth of a new industry in the next five or ten years, with companies who do that in collaboration with communities and public authorities.

I thought KPN had some kind of collaboration going in such a fashion?

KPN is the most interesting example.  I'm not sure whether KPN - KPN understands it's probably better than any incumbent telco in the world.  They have more local access fiber, not laid by KPN initially, but by Volker Vessels, the big construction company.  They've done it in association with a lot of the housing associations in the Netherlands. 

It's unclear, as yet, how it's going to end up, in my view.  I'm not sure whether KPN's view of the world, at the end of the day, is that there is a business in being a tollbooth, extracting money from content providers and traffic that passes across the Internet, or the local network, or whether it's just going to say, "The ownership, funding, and the financing of the fiber and wireless is as independent from the services we provide as the way we finance the roads is of the trucks, cars, and goods that are carried in the trucks and the cars".

So, you're wanting to see a hundred percent separation between applications like telephony, SMS, and underlying infrastructures?  That's what you ultimately wish to see.

I'm saying it's inevitable, as inevitable as the wheel.  What I want to see is this inevitability happen sooner rather than later because it will bring great benefit and open up new opportunities for new businesses and new business models. 

People will start shouting back, "Hey, what about quality of service?"  I know I'm talking to you over the public Internet, at the moment, using Skype, and that seems fine to me, but people will starting shouting, "This could be an emergency call," and the call could have dropped or the quality call was bad, or your ISP was down and don't have any real service level agreement, except to get it back up within for two days.

Of course they will do, yes.

So, you don't think we need certain voice quality guaranties and so forth?

You could argue the same thing about refrigerators.  You could argue the same thing [laughter].  At the end of the day, business opportunities for making sure that the bits travel without drop off, across the local network, of course we're going to be worried about it.  It can't.  We know all too well that this isn't delivered absolutely on a guaranteed basis from some huge, central authority sitting at the middle, in the same way that all this idea of security by having some central government authority monitoring all my bits, or keeping a database.  That's not going to work.  It's just special pleading.  Of course, people are going to say that. 

As you say, I don't even have to argue it.  Here am I; we've had a perfectly good, higher quality conversation over the last hour or however long we've been talking, that I could have ever possibly had.  Who is responsible for this?  I don't know; the guys who made the headphones and my microphone have obviously got the quality quite good there. [Laughter]  The USB plug that goes into my laptop seems to be good quality.  I haven't had any problem there.  The laptop is made by Samsung.  That seems to be all right.  I've got a bit of cable from there that I can see going to a Drytek router.  That seems to be all right.  The one that goes to the wall seems all right.  It's going across some cruddy, old copper wire.  Blimey, heaven knows how they've managed to keep going during our conversation, but still, they have. 

Okay, you know, the telecoms industry is stated as being up to a 3.4 trillion dollar a year industry.  Eighty percent of that revenue comes from telephony.  So, if you're saying that telephony will break away from the underlying infrastructure - personally, I don't think telephony will keep existing, but let's imagine that it does as an application.  The big question is telecoms' infrastructure is incredibly expensive.  I mean, Google couldn't even afford a build out in the States that was noteworthy, in terms of telecom network.  The infrastructure is massive, in terms of cost.  I've been looking at figures of how much networks cost. 

First of all, most people live in cities. 

Listen, if you take telephony out of the picture, what's happening, as we all know is that telephony is paying for the underlying infrastructure.  What I don't get is where you think money may move and the infrastructure may break away from the services, but all it means is that people get charged a lot more for access.  How do you marry up the cost of the infrastructure and maintaining it?

This is myth.  Look at the facts, Lee.  You go to one of the major guys who are leading the building of - if you look at the current cost of putting in a brand new fiber network in a fairly urban environment, you're going to build a new fiber network around ...

What we understand here is access network costs a lot more than the core networks.  We're taking it ...

Let's say the core network.  Over the last twenty years, we've had masses of fiber running up and down our countries and across the oceans.  Ninety percent of it isn't lit.  There is unquestionably no shortage of capacity of fiber outside of the local access network.  The problem is it's in the hands of an industry that's business model is based upon creating scarcity and creating value out of selling access to scarcity.  But there is no scarcity.  So, what they have to do is to pretend that there is scarcity. 

So, all these tales about the Internet falling over, due to the sudden rise in YouTube and so on, you don't agree with?

That's absolute crap. Absolute crap . All I can tell you, and I talk to physicists; you take one, tiny strand of fiber; nobody has yet found the upper limit of it.  In other words if you were to light all the spectrum colors in there, you have infinite capacity.  Obviously, you have to invest in the kit to put on to access that capacity in the fiber, but one of the things we're beginning to see happen is that Moore's Law is going to hit the DWDM kit in the same way it did the silicon chip.  We're going to find we're going to be able to access, out of that strand of dark fiber, twice as much bandwidth for half the cost, every eighteen months, for the next two to four decades.  There is absolutely none, no shortage of capacity out there.  The only people who are saying it are people on whose business model it depends. 

You and I knew when we went to school in the second grade that anything that is infinite supply, in a free market, is worth zip.  What's the value of sand in the Sahara Desert - nothing.  If you have a business model based upon selling sand in the Sahara Desert, you're in trouble, and they are in trouble.
Let me just give you the figures I was telling you about local network.  The current costs for building an average, new build, in an urban environment, fiber to the home not to the cabinet, brand new, is about seven hundred Euros. 

Per user?

Yes, per termination.  Of that, about four percent is the cost of the fiber, thirteen percent is connectivity products, seven percent is engineering, ten percent is project management, thirty to forty percent is installation, twenty-five percent is civil engineering, and five percent to the financing.  Twenty-five percent for civil engineering is a huge killer.

This is CAPEX only.  What about OPEX?

Hold on, let's just get it with a CAPEX first.  We're talking about seven hundred Euros.  How much do you pay, per year, for the line rental of your copper telephone line?

Well, I don't have a telephone line and I had a naked-DSL before.  It depends on the country, but if you take the country I'm currently in, I think it's about thirty Euros a month for connectivity, for cable.  I have fiber in the house; I just haven't paid for it.

You say connectivity; that includes the DSL connectivity, doesn't it?

Well, it includes the cable because I decided to go with cable since it's cheaper.

I would use a hundred or hundred twenty Euros a year. 

So, like thirty times twelve, so three hundred sixty Euros a year for connectivity.

That's got some active equipment on it.  I'm just talking about the line rental, the basic, physical, copper line rental that the average person is paying.

Yeah, but with cable lines...

They've got a telephone line.

Why do I need to have a telephone line?

You don't need to, but I'm trying to prove to you that it costs nothing.

In the U.K., where they don't offer a naked-DSL unfortunately, then I think British Telecom charges about eleven British Pounds per month, just for that piece of copper, without any service, no DSL.  Okay, now I've got you.

It's about a hundred twenty Pounds.  All I'm saying is that money is on the table.  Everybody is paying that money already, for access to a copper, local connectivity. 

Sorry, I forget; it seems pretty old-fashioned paying for a copper but I forgot most people are doing it. 

Forget the copper.  That money is on the table.  That money is already being paid out.  That money is more than enough to finance, if you convert it.  What I'm saying is that a seven hundred Euro investment, over a twenty-year period, doesn't require anything like a hundred twenty a year. 

Any talk about how this is an impossible thing to finance - it isn't impossible.  The figures work out easy.  The problem is, of course, how do you go to a home and get them, as it were, instead of paying the hundred twenty pounds to BT or to France Telecom, for the copper, what is the strategy for getting that money to go to support the financing of a fiber.

What's the OPEX cost?  I'm wondering if it's high.

Again, interestingly, no - the question of OPEX is slightly more difficult.  Obviously, for the large enterprises connected on that network, they will have their own operator but for the mass of residential and SMEs, there will be a contract let by that OPLAN, that passive network-owning company, I believe, as has been the plan in Amsterdam.  There will be a five to seven year contract to a company to provide the active layer.

I think one of the problems at the moment is that this is a brand new business.  There isn't a lot of experience and precedence there.  The trick is going to be to make sure the contract is let on a basis that recognizes there will be increase and upgraded quality and bandwidth, at a reduced cost.  That benefit has to be shared equitably between the contractor providing it and the network users.  That's the business.  I don't know who is going to own that business.  Is it going to be Cisco, or BT?

But the question is; what I'm trying to get at is, the operating expenditure, more than the original CAPEX; is it more than seven hundred Euros a year?  Is it ten percent of it?  Is it the same?

No, it's fractions of that.  You only need to realize that the reason, the primary reason why BT and all the other major telcos are investing in fiber to anywhere, fiber in the core network, is because it has a massive reduction in OPEX, a massive reduction compared to maintaining and running the copper network.

The interesting thing is, as I say, if you actually price up the active equipment, the network could go out and buy the active equipment and it would cost you very little.  The problem is if you do that, what you have installed is going to be out of date next year or the year after because you're going to be able to buy something twice ...

Okay, so the OPEX is a fraction of the CAPEX.  What you're trying to say is that you're paying "x" amount in line rental.  If we could find a model to convert those payments away from the telecom operator, we could fund something that is a much better value to end users.  So, end users would still be paying the same amount of money but deriving a lot more value.  You think you would speed up splitting away infrastructure from telephony, SMS, and other applications, i.e. the two services become separated from infrastructure.  Do I understand correctly?

Yes, in other words the entity that would be providing this connectivity would have nothing to do with what ran over it.

Is it not nice that game players get "x" network characteristics, people who are just doing FTP uploads get other network characteristics?  This seems kind of anti free market, that everybody gets given the same type of network, with the same ping times, same latency. 

No, they don't.  As I said to you, if you are a major corporation or you're somebody like yourself and you want to have the network lit at a particular active layer, a particular speed, or capacity, you could opt for that.  There is no reason at all.

So, it's not the communist network, then?  [Laughs]

No, it's less a communist network than it is now.  You could have everything you like, as long as it's ADSL. [Laughter]  Bear in mind, you and I are unusual animals.  For most people, all they want is a very fast and increasingly they want a symmetrical connectivity to the Internet.  That's what they think. 

However, there are a lot of other people in the community that want to have the ability for peer-to-peer.  I would argue that the average person will discover the value and opportunity of peer-to-peer, and certainly, local peer-to-peer.  Where we have these open access, local networks in place, we see kids doing unbelievable local peer-to-peer video activity. 

Like sharing their Blu-ray disc images with each other, within five minutes - fantastic!

Absolutely, there is another industry that is going to rethink itself.  [Laughter]  I think another thing we need to recognize is that there may be a lot of people who want to communicate with the houses, the homes, or the offices, other than the people inside the homes, and the offices themselves.  For instance, I am told, from talking with colleagues who are involved in the energy and power sector, that if you could have real time telemetry and remote control, at zero marginal cost, i.e., you're not paying for the bits for doing it, of a home heating system and you could then link this in with knowledge of what's happening with the coming ambient weather temperature and so forth, you might be able to start selling comfort rather than electricity.

I like the idea of buying comfort.

You might be able to say, "I'll contract to have my home at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, day in and day out," or "68 degrees in March and 49 degrees in July," or whatever it is.  If you could do that, that contract would have a massive impact upon the cost of energy.  The problem with energy, of all the utilities, is you have to manage the load and everything from the center.  If you could actually do it because you have real live, zero cost access to knowledge at the periphery, it changes the pattern of the world.

The need for high bandwidth, net neutrality in the local access loop in the community, is something that is wanted by a lot of people other than just the people living there.

What happens, for instance, in terms of security and all sorts of other things, if you could make the locks on the doors intelligent?  All this is not some special service linked to the infrastructure.  At the moment, you can go around suggesting they have webcams all over the place, but they're sitting on dedicated infrastructure. 

If you could have this open access fiber bathing and pervasive throughout the city or community, many people now, as I do, believe it will be transformational socially as well as economically.  That's my day job. [Laughs]

It sounds like a great day job.  I really look forward to the talk you're going to give at this conference.  I just wish to ask you a couple of things, straight away. I consider telecoms "my industry".  I mean, It's always been the love of mine.  So, want to put this question to you and feel free to answer it from any direction you like, and briefly, if possible.  What do you see as the future of the telecommunications industry?  Pass some comment on the future of the telecommunications industry, please.

Most of the telecoms' incumbent operators and the sort of parasitic, competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), I think, are heading for a precipice.  Now, when I talk to the senior management in most of these companies, they don't like acknowledging it.  They understand it though.  They can see the evaporation of revenues, just uncontrollable. 

For the last ten or fifteen years, they have hung onto the old business model.  They thought they could make sure the terrain in front of them was level and as much like where they'd come from as possible, by resorting to influencing public policy and capturing the regulators, which they seem to have done in most countries, fairly successfully.  [Laughter]

What we're talking about here, Lee, are fundamental dynamics of physics.  They just are running out of space.  They know that they are getting very close to the cliff. 

So, if I'm being cynical about it, I would say that most CEO's, if they find they can no longer cudgel their governments and regulators into giving them some privileged access to this technology or imposing regulations that favor them, what they're doing is they're getting out.  They're resigning.  [unclear name] of BT; brilliant.  Let's get out before we hit the wall.

Many of these companies are going to hit the wall in one form or another.  When they hit the wall, what I mean is, and we have to remember this, that the management and shareholders get crucified.  The assets don't go away.  The knowledge and experience that exists within the company, great knowledge, and experience of telecoms and how it works at an operational level doesn't go away.

What I believe we will see is a rapid, after one or two Stockton and Darlington's we will see a rapid restructuring of the industry.  We will see the old, vertically integrated "we can do everything" telco disappear.  It will fragment into a hundred, a dozen, or a few pieces.  There will be local networks.  There will be a very interesting business providing global connectivity, on a highly competitive basis.  There is going to be the business of lighting and managing these networks.  Again, some of these telcos are going to be able to move into that space very well.  There are going to be some services for major enterprises and global ...

So, are you are not a fan of the Telco 2.0 double-sided business model that is going to save the day?  [Laughter]  I don't mean to pit you against others who are in our friendship group, but everybody has different opinions.  That's what makes the beauty of the whole thing.  So, comment on a double-sided business model, if you can.

In case somebody is listening, summarize what you mean by that so we're talking about the same thing.

Well, it's a fact that instead of just trying to sell downstream to consumers, i.e. you charge them for telephony, you give away telephony -  I don't personally think telephony will exist long term, but since everybody understands it, we'll keep using it - you give away telephony free of charge to the consumer but then you start making money upstream by enabling sellers, the likes of Google and so on, enabling connectivity between businesses and consumers. 

It's like Google; Google gives search away free of charge and that gains them a massive number of users.  Then, they make money by selling upstream to advertisers.  Maybe there are ways of selling packaging and postage.  When somebody sells you a movie over the Internet, it doesn't get subtracted from your monthly allowance [broadband cap].  So, it's other parties are paying the bills behind the scenes.

Martin and I have had discussions on it.  Obviously, being cynical, Telco 2.0 depends financially and utterly on people going to listen to it, who can afford to pay the tickets from the industry that is being given the message.  Undoubtedly, that double-sided model is a glimmer of hope if you're a telco wanting to think "We can extend the cliff a bit further and we can make it last a bit longer," I would certainly grasp onto that.  As far as I'm concerned, it's simply an idea to smooth the future a bit.

The idea that there is a non-disruptive, smooth, migratory way from where we are to the future, I think, is an illusion.  It will be messy.  It will be all sorts of ups and downs and so forth.  I don't think the vertically integrated service provider model is sustainable in the digital world.

I know you've been focusing on infrastructure so maybe it's a bit unfair to ask you this, but how do you see the opportunities, in terms of telecom innovation, if I even call it telecom?  That's a question; should we even be using the world telecom or communications anymore?  I don't know.

Interestingly, the two words I personally like using when talking with individuals is connectivity and conversation.  People want to converse.  That's not just talk, but communicate or converse.  I think telecoms - I wrote an article about ten years ago, "Telecoms Is Dead; Long Live Telecoms".  We're not going to get away from that phrase, but you asked the question about the applications. 

Where is the excitement?  I know you've been focusing on infrastructure. 

The excitement is when I meet a twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old and I know that when they have a abundant bandwidth and capacity and cheap digital processing kit in their hands, they will dream them up.  It's not for me or you to do it, anymore than it is "Oh, let's invent the wheel so that".  It will happen.

I always remember Ken Olsen, when he was the head of Digital Equipment.  Do you remember he came out with that famous statement, "It's inconceivable that every home will want a computer"?  It was inconceivable.  It's inconceivable today, what all these new applications and services will be.  All we know is that when we all got low cost PC's, there was an explosion of applications and new uses that we never could have thought of.

I may dream up one or two, and if I have some good ideas - as I say to people, I don't believe in intellectual property.  I believe if I have a good idea I must either get out and exploit it faster than you or I must keep my mouth shut.  So, I'm going to keep my mouth shut.  [Laughs]

Okay, you do that.  [Laughter]  We'll be popping over and seeing what you're doing. 

I have been, literally for twenty-five years, frustrated and angry, I suppose, at what I see as these rich and abundant fruits that society will be able to derive from these technologies being held back because it's been channeled through some preordained sectors.  I have been wrong.  Looking back on it, my biggest error and insight was to see that there was going to be this inevitable bifurcation between the bits and the pieces, the hardware, and the stuff that runs over it and that they were going to be as separate in the digital world as they were in the analog world. 

If I was wrong on anything, it was in my expectation that it would become apparent to one and all, this year and next year, but the power of vested interests is extremely strong.  I shall ever forget, just before that BT conference I was having a conversation with the then Minister of Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, who was responsible for telecoms.  I was saying to her, in a one-to-one conversation with Patricia Hewett (MP), that what we need is an exemplar.  We need an example of the other way of doing things in terms of the local access network.  Once one can see that, kick the tires, and look at it, I'm convinced people will say, "Oh I see now.  If you'd have told me that that was what you were talking about you would have persuaded me a long time ago".  You're going to do the same, Lee.

Are you going to have that exemplar in the go by eComm, do you think?

I don't know.  This is why I'm cautious.  I've always been wrong about the timing.  When she said to me, "That's great, Malcolm, what can I do to help?"  I said, "What you can do to help is nothing".  She said, "What?"  I said, "Guarantee to me that you will do nothing".  She said, "What do you mean?"  I said, "Guarantee to me that when British Telecom or GEC or somebody else knocks on the door of Number 10, and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair answers and says, 'What do you want," and the vested interest says, 'Stop this; it's ruining our business.  If this thing goes ahead, we're going to be out of business all together.'  I want you to guarantee that Tony Blair will say, 'Push off, I'm not interfering with the free market and enterprise.'"  She said, "We can't.  I couldn't do that, could I?"  BT is a very major company in the British scheme of things.  It employs sixty thousand people. 

I don't know what's going to come out of the woodwork to sort of hinder this in the short term.  All I know, Lee, is in the long term it's inevitable.  I hope I'm here to help make it happen.  I hope I'm here to see it happen.  There are some very good signs.  I would say, in conclusion, if you're going to look at one place and keep an eye on one place, if it emerges anywhere ahead of where I'm trying to do some things, I suspect Singapore may be a very interesting place to watch.

Okay, so if we swing from Number 10 in the U.K., all the way across that pond, do you want to make any recommendations if you were advising Obama and his appointment of Chairman of the FCC?

He probably doesn't know my phone number, but I'd be happy to go and give him a hand.

I know somebody who knows him, so I could pass it on?  [Laughs]

What you should do - what I would say is don't look in the conventional areas.  I did hear Lawrence Lesig's name mentioned.  That wouldn't be a bad thing but you have to have somebody who is pretty strong, understands the fundamentals of it, and is prepared to 'sacrifice' what might appear as some pretty big beasts, in the short term, for the sake of the long-term future and wellbeing of the American people, and indeed, the free world.

I am always tempted to say that the current financial crisis is a good thing in all this because it is really causing people to think, "Hang on; there is something different about the future".  I look forward to Barak Obama's appointment.  I don't know who it is.  Whoever it is; give them my phone number.  I'm very happy to help, [Laughs] but I really do believe it needs some radical rethinking. 

Interestingly, when Powell was at the FCC, he got it.  But, he was moved on.  Some of his statements, in his last few days at the FCC, were visionary and unbelievable in talking about the segregation between infrastructure and services.  But as I say, George Bush moved him on and we went to a new era.

What would you say the biggest issue facing incumbent telecom players is, today?

The biggest issue, I think, is have they left the decision to late as to what their business is?  Are they going to release infrastructure in order to climb up the value chain, into the service application area or are they going to forget the service application area and fall back into focusing on the infrastructure? 

The other thing they're faced with, because most incumbent telcos currently are nationalized or national carriers, most cities have, as their local incumbent, a national carrier.  They're going to have to also face this issue that the city of Chicago is going to want to have a better local connectivity than the city of Detroit, or the city of Lubljana is going to want to have a better local connectivity than the city of Sombor, in order to compete.  There is a growing awareness; this is where we came in at the beginning, there is a growing awareness between a new breed of local, political leader that the open quality of connectivity in a town is going to be the fourth utility.  It's going to be one of the key determinates of that town or community's ability to compete in a global market, for attracting inward investment, in an ever increasingly e-economy.

Okay, that's interesting, actually.  I wish I had asked you that at the beginning because there are a lot of things I would have like to pick up on there.  There are other Sundays.  We've had a few calls now, but we haven't bothered recording them.  So, listen, it's been great having a Sunday cup of tea with you.  I'm going to get the kettle on and make another one.  Thanks for letting me record our casual chat, today.

When I've got time, I try to be open.  I like to share as much as I can and to listen as much as I can.  I look forward to the conference.  I'm sure that will be a great time for conversation. 

I'm sure it will be.  Hey, listen, take care, and have a good Sunday.  Thank you very much.

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This page contains a single entry by Lee S Dryburgh published on January 13, 2009 4:37 AM.

Matt Ranney on Thinking Beyond VoIP and A. Bell Telephony was the previous entry in this blog.

Irv Shapiro on "Cloud Telephony" and IfByPhone is the next entry in this blog.

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