Phone Company Innovations

I'm wearing my Bell Labs t-shirt today. That—and some recent press articles—have me thinking about telco innovation.

First, a June 7 article in the New York Times reports that the original Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, New Jersey is being sold to a real estate developer to be demolished. This great industrial lab has given us amazing discoveries from the the first (bipolar junction) transistor to theories of the origin of the universe. Today's open source software movement has its basis in the Unix Operating System, developed at the labs. Engadget (taking a break from their usual gizmo-porn) published a great retrospective that expresses the enormity of the loss.

Maybe we should just write off the loss as a vestige of the old Bell System. For today's vital research and innovation, maybe we should look not towards the remains of the old Western Electric, but rather to the vibrant and vigorous Baby Bells.

Last week, Business Week published an article that suggests the phone companies don't do much innovation at all. Sometimes it seems like phone company innovation is limited to creating the business processes that assemble blocks of technology invented by others. The article suggests that if you want to see who is doing exciting work in industrial research you should be looking at Google, not SBC (now renamed AT&T). Maybe that's why Vint Cerf and Rob Pike jumped from telcos to Google.

I think innovation is an important element of the net neutrality debate. The telcos claim that laissez faire regulation of Internet will foster innovation. I disagree. That policy almost certainly will lead to replacing the open, neutral Internet with a tiered network.

One of the most important benefits of net neutrality is that an open Internet allows thousands of organizations to innovate. As you start imposing tiering barriers, you have fewer and fewer organization able to participate, thus fewer able to innovate. Eventually you reach the point of a closed network (like cell phones) where the only organization that can deploy innovation is the network provider.

I don't like the idea of a non-neutral network where the phone companies can control who is allowed to innovate. After reading the Business Week article, I wonder if there would be much innovation at all on a tiered Internet. After all, how many innovations like transistors or Unix have you seen come out of SBC or Verizon?