The Regulatorium and the Moral Imperative

Saturday, November 01, 2003

This is a copy of my November 2003 VON Magazine Column

image, VoIP Visions - The Regulatorium and the Moral Imperative, by Bob Frankston Regulation is a world-wide concern, with the issue of scarcity as a key factor.

At VON Fall 2003, I gave a presentation which I entitled "Don't Ask" because I come from a software culture where you don't have to ask permission -- you just write your code and that's that. Now I find myself dealing with a complex system of rules and requirements that I call The Regulatorium. I could argue about each aspect but, basically, the system is self-perpetuating. Each rule is necessary because of another, related rule. You have to step back and see the system as a whole and in order to talk about it we need to assign it a suitable name. Thus, The Regulatorium.

One advantage of attending VON is that I got a chance to meet a number of the regulators. Not all of them are clueless. In fact, some are very interested in understanding what is happening and coming to terms with it. While it's true that the incumbents want to fight to preserve their privilege they wouldn't succeed if their arguments didn't make sense to the policymakers and to those who elect the policymakers.

The regulators have real concerns about societal issues such as emergency services and the responsibility to make sure that everyone is connected to the network. These are noble goals but it is hard to speak about them because they've become so identified with the telecommunications industry. Or, at least, the telecommunications industry as it was codified in the 1930s.

The very first amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteed free speech. You needn't ask permission before speaking and the onus was on those listening to deal with what you said. The courts have been reluctant to put any restrictions on speech, at least if it is done over the same media that was available in the 1700s. The US benefited from this spirit because it allowed innovative ideas to be heard and instead of prejudging which were good and bad, we had a marketplace in which ideas could find a home and flourish. Those ideas which were not adopted simply faded away and could vie for attention later. Great ideas were embodied in the innovations that drove the economy. If no one listens or the marketplace doesn't buy into the idea, then you try again. Failure is a learning experience and not a moral failure.

Telecommunications was very different. It was born in poverty. Alexander Graham Bell was trying to find out how to share a scarce resource -- the telegraph line -- and failed. With voice we still have one conversation per pair of wires to this day! The idea behind sharing a telegraph line -- the harmonic telegraph, did find a use in radio. It became spectrum allocation. Instead of one radio station, we could now have many. But "many" is not the same as "unlimited." We had to create a world wide system to ensure that no one owned a transmitter.

Scarcity forces us to make choices; instead of a marketplace, we have to prejudge what are the good and bad uses of a technological resource. This is a moral decision, not a technical one. We must rely on morality. And once it becomes a moral issue, it's hard to resist going a step further and having the good applications contribute to the moral campaign to ensure both access and safety.

In the last 50 years, thanks to Hollywood actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, who gave us the beginning of spread spectrum as an alternative to frequency allocation and to Claude Shannon who demonstrated that there was no intrinsic relationship between the transport and the content, telecommunications has been able to join the rapid growth that had characterized the computer industry.

Instead of having to focus on allocating scarcity we have found that demand actually creates supply and therefore we have abundance.

Technically we could embrace the new opportunity. But the moral imperative has made it difficult for the policy makers to embrace the opportunity to do far more for public safety then E911 could possibly do. Policy makers also seem stymied with regards to thinking creatively about universal access.

We must recognize when doing what was good becomes bad.


MIT alumnus Bob Frankston was the co-developer (with Dan Bricklin) of the legendary VisiCalc. He later developed Lotus Express. During his 1990s tenure at Microsoft, Frankston initiated the home networking effort which has made it possible for you to buy a small router and easily connect your home with the Internet. He can be reached via Email

Bob Frankston Site