Bandwidth in the time of cholera

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In internet service provision, if an end user customer catches cholera that is their problem.

Many industry professionals sensibly opt to converse in analogies, simplifying the clear-as-mud world of four letter acronyms to instead , for example, paint the world of broadband as a motorway with dirt track off-ramps, and draw parallels between airlines and telcos to describe the highly differentiated services-led approaches needed to combat the commoditization of bandwidth.

My favourite of these old chestnuts is the concept of ISPs and telcos as utility providers; that somehow the provision of data services is very much the same as water, for instance. Both have the reservoirs (backbone), pipes (DSL), taps (CPE), meters (billing), the list goes on. It's a clever and convincing argument but with one immovable blockage lodged firmly in the U-bend, water provided by the local utility is cleansed and service provider connectivity is not.

If service providers wish to subscribe to the ideal that the pervasiveness of modern communications will compel residential and business consumers to absorb increasing amounts of bandwidth and services as essential utilities, it is clearly incumbent upon them to start behaving like other utility providers. They need to offer a ready to consume service that requires no additional treatment. A service that will not cripple the very devices it is meant to feed.

Owing to a mixture of government dictum, voluntary practice and commercial expediency, water companies regularly reinvest substantial sums of their revenue ensuring that their product is provided reliably and filtered free of the kind of nasty content that could seriously harm the very people who pay to use it. In telecoms, if a customer gets cholera in the virtual service "water" then it becomes their problem.

Changing of the Guard, Assuming Clean Network Responsibility

In many ways, a reinvigorated self-examination of service providers' corporate social responsibility would actually provide their business with a decent commercial return and possible competitive advantage. The biggest single obstacle stopping enterprises from placing business critical applications and resources (supply chain management, voice networks, collaboration systems, payment and transaction databases etc.) outside of their own closed networks and inside the Internet cloud as part of a managed service, is the well-founded concern of security. With the increasing rivers of volume of viruses, hackers, worms, spam, spyware and grayware out 'in the wild', the world's network has ceased to be a mighty river and turned into a festering swamp. IDC Research recently noted that "swamp residents" include Script Kiddies, Wannabees, Vandals, Hacktavists, Organized Crime, Terrorists, Foreign Intelligence Agencies, and Hackers for Hire.

Enterprises do not wish to have their brands and own revenue generating services damaged, anymore than a residential user wants to risk an attack on their computer hard drive every time they go online. Clean water ISPs would surely be warmly received and immediately obtain a differentiating advantage over their competitors. Traditional utility providers can now only really differentiate from each other on price. This is a non-sustainable advantage.

A counter-argument to cleansed bandwidth is that science has long since conquered water-borne bacteria, while ever changing web-borne computer bugs will forever run riot. This is simply not reality since dynamically eliminating computer malware from entering the bandwidth water is possible today. Firstly, both human and digital nasties constantly evolve, as do the malicious tactics of intruders. Secondly, our ability to control these 'utility threats' depends upon our ability and commitment to pursue a technological solution that can evolve to eliminate ever changing virus mutations. Some in this world have access to clean sterilising agents and network security alike while those that haven't suffer grave and unnecessary operational and ultimately financial fallouts.

Becoming a true utility provider means signing up to a charter that promises a reliable clean, secure product. I can think of no reason why user/customers would not herald such a service advancement and customer commitment.

Lessons from the Electrical Utility Industry

The responsibility of utilities to provide a 'clean' product has pushed their industry one stage further. The Kyoto protocol providing recommended reductions in industrial carbon emissions, has led the European Union to develop innovative solutions and prevent any damage to the people they serve. The London Carbon Exchange will allow clean providers to cash in any surplus emission allowances, at the expense of dirty providers who must purchase excess allowances on the open market or else face fines and further censure. The simplicity and transparency of the system gives fair reward and fair punishment according to how well they deliver on their social responsibilities. What odds would a similar exchange for the service provider industry face in the market for virus-ridden traffic, unsolicited content or network downtime?

Whether a charter or a piece of legislation in place, telcos could finally differentiate and offer greater user value at a greater premium. Without it, they'll continue to plumb the depths of a non-potable commodity rather than cleansed service offering. Customers will likely vote with their wallets for a virus-free network connection that will not endanger their business operations or capital investments. The choice is pure and clear.

The author is Regional Director, Fortinet

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