Each time a new mobile computing device is introduced, a quiet revolution is taking place as people line up in stores around the country and the world from Honolulu to Hong Kong: the anytime, anywhere access to communicating is turning into a way of life. We are almost ready to take such a way of life for granted just as we have done with electricity and telephony in the past. The technical ideas behind making such a lifestyle feasible are not new. They are as old as the dedicated private networks of IBM mainframes and their dumb terminals, internet, and Arthur Clarke’s conception of a geostationary artificial satellite mimicking the moon.
The feasibility of this lifestyle is because of the marriage of all three ― computing, internetworking and satellite communications―which has manifested the interdependencies within human societies as a rapidly emerging global computing and communications network, making it possible for the world wide web (WWW) to exist since Tim Berners Lee. The technical synonym for the new wave of global social interdependence as exemplified by everything from MySpace and Facebook to Linkedin, known as Web 2.0, is netcentricity.
Netcentric life is built on the increasingly seamless computer and communications networks in a manner that is both wired and wireless and centralized and decentralized. Just as centralized power generating stations since Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla and telephone exchanges since Alexander Graham Bell are evolving into the co-existence of distributed (for example, roof-top solar) and centralized (large electrical utilities) power generation and distributed (wireless towers and cellular phones) and centralized (wired switching stations) telephony, the power of computing since the invention of the internet is also evolving into the cohabitation of distributed (a myriad of powerful local devices such as the iPhone, iPad, laptops and desktops) and centralized (large, powerful data and application servers in datacenters) computing. This evolutionary trinity is also merging into a seamless whole by the very nature of that evolution. Electricity, telephony and computing are rapidly morphing into a unified utility.
The great debate about the neutrality of the internet, which is bringing into its fold electricity, voice, video and data, each being a different manifestation of the same underlying flow of electrons or the movement of light through a wire or the radio waves of Marconi and Baird without a wire, has become a debate about owning a piece of the internet rather than owning the content that the internet enables. Google and Verizon want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to permit them to charge consumers for bandwidth usage or the wireline or wireless pipe size that is necessary to consume one type of content or the other. Consumers could end up paying one price for video bandwidth, another for voice/audio bandwidth and yet another for data bandwidth along with paying for the type of video, voice/audio and data.
Access to the internet, which is today an all private infrastructure similar to power, water and gas lines, is an access, as Google and Verizon agree, that must be open and available to all. However, leaving open the possibility to charge variably for bandwidth as a utility rather than for the content that travels through the pipe as a utility is what is troublesome. Similar to all other utilities, bandwidth of a certain standardized capacity, for example, giga-bit internet access must be accessible by default to all consumers, rural and urban, no matter who is laying the wires (copper or fiber-optic) or building the wireless (FCC spectrum allocation policy) towers. The type and amount of content consumed, which may travel faster or slower depending on its size and complexity, must be packaged to be priced in the competitive content market.
The architecture of the smart grid, a world in which consumers would use the internet/electricity grid for everything from smart microwaves and dishwashers to surfing the web, watching television and listening to the radio anytime and anywhere, let alone engaging in telemedicine, must be expected to eventually merge all of its uses (content) into one, both technologically and in the sphere of government regulation. The enabler of it all is the bandwidth ― a standard pipe size (infrastructure) that is scalable for permitting ever more content of various types to flow through it easily, quickly and securely without congestion, failure or fear of loss or attack. The new internet infrastructure needs a government standard for bandwidth and security which must be created in concert with all the private infrastructure stakeholders similar to the regulation of electricity, telephone and television infrastructures.
In such a world of two separate competitive markets, one for the smart grid infrastructure providers and the other for the content providers, consumers can switch between providers in both markets, based on their preferences for price and quality, just as they currently do with their power, telephone and cable companies.
The basic economic principles governing netcentric market competition, a world in which distinct power, telephone and cable companies would be relics of the past, need not be any different from those for the other markets that preceded them.