Interview with David S. Isenberg

davidDavid S. Isenberg spent 12 years at AT&T Bell Labs until his 1997 essay,“The Rise of the Stupid Network”, was received with acclaim everywhere in the global telecommunications community with one exception – at AT&T itself! So Isenberg left AT&T in 1998 to found, LLC (an independent telecom analysis firm based in Cos Cob, Connecticut) and to publish The SMART Letter, an open-minded commentary on the communications revolution and its enemies.

I’ve met David in Munich at the DLD ConferenceinJanuary this year. While the “real” party was going on on the 6 floor of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, we weresitting downstairs in the lobby. We couldn’t get up because the roof was so packed that they didn’t allow anybody to get up there. But we had fun. Together with Silke Claus, CEO of the German Design Center in Berlin we were chatting with David. While we were talking we found out, that David, who is living in Connecticut, knew my Aunt’s fabulous terrace in midtown Manhattan. A friend of his had his office right above my Aunt’s apartment. What a small world!You are primarily an infrastructure guy. So tell us, what is so unique about the infrastructure of the internet and how will it change within the next decade?davidThe unique thing about the Internet is that it is a very general architecture that lets us run any application over any physical network. If we want to run telephony or TV or radio, we can do it without any special modifications of the network, just give us an Internet connection and the right end-user software. This is unprecedented. In the past, radio required a special radio network, TV required a special TV network, telephony required a special telephony network, banks required special transaction networks. Now all of these apps are just apps, independent
of the Internet. This not only makes the Internet unique, it also makes it disruptive. The folks at Burda might think the Internet is a disruptive force in publishing, and that’s true, but it is even more disruptive to companies that have invested billions in a special-purpose network, e.g., Deutsche Telekom, and have grown a business model around that network. The next ten years will see further technological progress vehemently and actively opposed by network providers like DT who are, increasingly shut out of the application space by the likes of Skype and YouTube — they will shout “scarcity” or “national security” or “porn” and they will propose that they assume a local monopoly position and use their physical network assets to “control” the applications they identify as threats. But the real threat they’re defending against is the destruction of their legacy business by the Internet. Infrastructure is a technical term. But it causes a lot of “social” changes. What has changed the last couple of years? And what will change?davidThe social changes in response to the Internet are just starting, and it will be some time before we grasp them (assuming that Internet progress is not reversed by the telcos, see above). There have already been changes in the ways we work, shop, socialize, engage in civic life and spend our leisure time. These are likely to become more prominent and richly-branching.

It is my sincere hope that the Internet will help us as a species
living on a small planet to realize that we’re all in this together,
and that it will help us coordinate planet-wide action, without the
impeding influence of governments and corporations, to save the
Earth’s climate system, to get resources from those who have to those who need, to expose mass corruption, greed and cruelty where it exists and marshall countervailing forces, and to help us optimize our global interest as a species. But, realistically, it is just as likely that the Internet will become a tool of surveillance, oppression and self-aggrandizement. The outcomes are unpredictable, and as with all other aspects of human freedom, if we care we will struggle for what we see as right.In comparison to Europe, why is the mobile infrastructure so poor in the US?davidWe can thank the Reagan FCC who thought that market forces would determine the best mobile infrastructure, and, as a result, we have several different mobile infrastructures to “choose” from. Of course, no end user cares about whether they use CDMA or GSM or TDMA or any of the others as long as they can make phone calls, access their messages, et cetera. But in the U.S. there must be three times more “cells” and three times more kinds of incompatible end-user devices.What are the biggest challenges in the next 10 years as far as infrastructure is concerned?davida) Keeping Internet applications, content, services and devices away from the clutches of the telephone companies.

b) Figuring out sustainable business models for providing Internet access, and expanding and growing the infrastructure – models that are not dependent on network providers also providing applications!You’ve attended the DLD conference in Munich? Why did you attend and what are your impressions?david I thought it was awesome and fabulous. I attended because Yossi invited me, and I always do whatever he suggests (so far, anyhow). I especially appreciated the ability to interact with folks from Europe who seem to have taken the lead in Internet matters thanks to good policy there and an absence of Internet policy in the US.

Some more personal questions:What was your career aspiration at the age of 6?I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.What is your most favourite software?unix, OSXWhat drives you crazy? Lying liars, especially greedy selfish lying liars without empathy for the people they kill, occupy, oppress, impede and pollute.

Especially myopic greedy selfish lying liars who can’t foresee the long term global consequences of their actions.

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