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The Sharing Economy and the Telecommunications World

January 11, 2013

I gave a keynote at the WinnForum in Washington D.C. this week.  Part of my talk was focused on the sharing economy.  As most people know Aviz recently bought  Zipcar and this has been heralded as a huge step forward in the bedding down of the sharing economy. I thought it might be useful to look at the mobile communications sector from a broad sharing economy perspective rather than just start with the typical topic of ‘spectrum sharing’ and to look at how we can feed this into experimental work. As one of my colleagues fondly told me recently – my slides without me are totally useless (because they are all image and no words)  – I thought I might write a few words to explain them. The useless slides are here  btw. The comments below talk through each of the slides.

I used some material from the 2010 Latitude & Shareable study on the sharing economy to frame the talk as well as material from Rachel Botsman’s very well know book on collaborative consumption – What’s Mine is Yours.  The Latitude study is carried out, from my understanding at least, from the perspective on an end user and attempts to understand the users motivation for sharing. It does not focus on the telecoms world. It talks about technology, community, environmental concerns and recession as drivers of the sharing economy as well as looking at some of the different structures of the sharing process (e.g. life-cycle structure , community structure etc.). Rachel Botsman captures  lots of these themes in her book and talks about the move from hyper consumption to collaborative consumption. The opportunities being all around items which we use infrequently or for which the burden of ownership is too high.

Having set up these sharing economy ideas, the talk went on to look at all the parts of the mobile network to get a better perspective on how OWNERSHIP and CONTROL of the different parts of the network have been challenged over the years.

We are all very familiar with the changes in the content and applications world. User driven content and apps that are designed by anyone interested are not part of the mobile communications worlds. On the infrastructure side we have seen many changes over the years. Mobile operators themselves have adopted sharing. Sharing of sites and sharing of masts. There are shared basestation options. But we also see with the emergence of femtocells ownership spreading from them to us! We own the basestation in our house. There is a huge blurring of boundaries between the cellular and WiFi worlds. As the 2012 Richard Thanki report points out, operators ave between 30-90 billion a year in money they would otherwise have to invest in infrastructure were they not able to offload to WiFi. I recently heard another statistic but cannot find the reference – only 5% capacity of public WiFi in the UK is used in off-loading – so there is more capacity to be had.  The extent to which ownership of infrastructure will change can only grow as we enter the era of the Internet of Things and we ourselves install as aspects of the network.

The infrastructure builders of the future of course may increasingly come for new and different sources. I brought up the many new kinds of hardware that is out there – with which to create and build networks . The whole hackerlab and the D.I.Y. urbanism and MAKER  movements capture that shift in society in this direction. In fact many of those from the WinnForum community are enablers of this space. Matt Ettus the creator of the USRP, Tom Rondeau and GNU radio, Paul Sutton and Iris – the open BTS people etc. There are tonnes of examples. And as per my main point this kind of activity is spreading beyond the purely technical expert space.

I went on to talk more about infrastructure. And I used Homeless Hotspots. I blogged about this before. It is no doubt controversial to turn a homeless person into an LTE hotspot but I think leaving aside for a moment the issues it does highlight the idea that ‘infrasturcture’ is changing and that we all may one day be a basestation each.

There of course is also all of the worldwide focus of activity on spectrum sharing.  I tend to use the idea of the house, hotel and dorm to capture exclusive ownership, exclusive sharing and non-exclusive sharing. I think that is one thing to remember – sharing of spectrum comes in many shapes and forms and can be related back to the synchronous, asynchronous and collaborative life-cycles mentioned in the Latitude & Shareable reprt.

Or course I can’t not mention cognitive radio. But rather than think of cognitive radio as a radio for unlicensed use or any one thing – think of it as the smarts in the network that enables new modes of ownership and control throughout the network. Not just in terms of accessing spectrum but in terms of bringing the self-organising capabilities into play that  mean the old way of doing things is not the only way.

My next slide hit on yet another random addition to the list – the bus network. In CTVR we looked at what would happen if we placed a sensor on each bus in the Dublin Bus route and our calculations showed that we would need 90% more static senors distributed around the city to take the same measurements.  What is the point of this comment?? Well it shows that our traditional notion of network infrastructure is changing and the new and surprising entities can become part of the bigger picture. It is not unreasonable to think that a public transport network can be used to monitor spectrum usage, aid with policing and compliance issues or better still be a public service itself to help with more dynamic forms of networks that are created on the fly using available spectrum.

All of this and much much more which I did not go into leads to the fact that today and into the future a network will consist of a growing mix of resources. These resources will be public or private or crowdsourced. They may come from a large private entity or an individual.  They may come from surprising resources. There is a complex mix of ownership models across the space. It is very nuanced.  For example where once network planners used propriety propagation tools to plan network, many now turn to Google maps and streetview and other sources to inform choices. There are many different payment mechanisms ranging from distributed systems and micropayments to more traditional ones. There are all flavours of auctions for accessing and buying goods. There are increasingly varied sources of power. There are all forms of cloud resources and functionality in the network oscillates from the cloud to the edge and back. It is a complex and intriguing picture.

My colleagues Luiz DaSilva, Tim Forde and Jacek Kibilda and myself have been working on a vision of wireless architecture that stems from the picture I just described. We call it Networks without Borders.   We view a network as something that is composed from a pool of infrastructure and other resources rather than as a pre-designed entity that adapts within the limits of that design. They will be performed into existence. Contributors to the pool of resources can range for large scale mobile operators to individuals. Users, along with their personal mobile devices, will become active elements of the network – sometimes providing a shared radio and local Internet access to each other. We see virtualisation of the functionality that composes the network as a central element in the vision and in this context envisage new functional entities such as the ‘network aggregators’ and ‘virtual network architects’.  We see every operator as being some kind of virtual entity as no one operator will own all the infrastructure. Networks Without Borders will allow the users to connect, in a systematic way, with multiple networks simultaneously without an exclusive subscription to a particular infrastructure operator. We view the network as a transient entity – it is composed for specific purposes. We see the network as something that corresponds to the delivery of a specific service rather than an entity to which the user belongs or is attached. We see the network as a fungible entity – on instantiation can be swapped for others. We see new modes of business models underpinning this kind of vision – business models for composing the network, ppp, ‘free’ modes of access, cognitive rent etc.

However whether you agree with the Network with Borders vision or not, there is is plenty change afoot in networks as we know them are a changing! Of course there are those who want to continue to build borders and preserve the status quo but the erosion is happening all over (an erosion we welcome).

At this stage of the talk I then went back to the ideas from the sharing economy at the beginning and commented on how I see the telecoms world through this light. In short we have many of the advancements in technology.  Though the new kinds of glue that will allow the network to be performed into existence from a wider set of disparate resources needs much work. We are somewhat concerned about power and environmental issues but not enough.  THE COMMUNITY IS NOT THERE. You can see that from a lot of what you read. There are those who believe in sharing and those who bitterly oppose it all. It needs to be built. What is supremely missing is TRUST. The first question that everyone asks is ‘how can I offer a good service based on resources I do not fully own or control’. It is always the question that is asked.  And a major mindset shift is needed. And from the economics perspective we have the incentive – continued investment in rolling out and upgrading networks is a huge burden – but we do not have the answers that provide new business models to support the sharing economy in the telecoms world.

What I do think though is that the sharing economy in the telecoms world is about much more than identifying resources that are used infrequently (such as spectrum in many cases) and are a huge cost burden – it is also about challenging the powers that be, questioning the role of networks in our lives and how has control over those networks. It is about politics.

And finally in terms of bringing the talk back to the opening remarks I think there are a number of new dimensions in sharing – circled in green on the slides – that are very unexploited in the telecoms world and ripe for further exploration.

The final slides in the talk are all about experimentation in this space. The whole point of the discussion to date was to unpack the mobile network with a few to considering these issues in an experimental context. Essentially the last few slides ask that we move away from the kinds of experimentation we have been doing and really mix it up and go wilder and embrace all the different issues – jot just technology but also include experimental work in terms of business models that might underpin these future networks.

In my opinion change is inevitable and we either look for opportunities as what it means to be a network changes or we for a short time continue to build borders to self-protect. It is not easy to balance the need for investment and the return on investment with sharing concepts and ideas that dilute those returns if we think in the terms we have been used to – so we need to think in new ways and find new solutions.

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One Comment
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