Cordelia

This speech was given by Adam Singer at the Whitehead Mann dinner on 14th April 2003.

Good evening. I was asked to talk about Broadband. Broadband, like the word freedom, is essentially indefinable. Dictionaries take paragraphs of similes to corral the word freedom. Just when you had it nailed, along comes ‘freedom fries’. Being an American phrase you might think ‘freedom fries’ was an affectionate name for a Texas electric chair, but as you know it means chips free from all Gallic connotations involving acquiescent camembert consuming simians.

Freedom is a ‘what ever you want it to be’ word. For me I will always associate the word freedom with Charles Burdick, then Chief Financial Officer of Telewest, who, whenever asked about how much money we had left, burst into the chorus from Bobby McGee, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to loose”.

Similarly the word broadband is just another semantic bar of soap on the wet floor of imprisoning lexicography. What is broadband?

Presumably, Caxton described his printing press as broadmonk, 10 times faster than dial a friar, or a scriptorium on mead.

And Alexander Graham Bell probably sold telephone with lines like, ‘Do your telegrams lack dash? Got dots before the eyes? You need Broad Morse, RSI free, and 10 times faster than a clerk with rheumatoid fingers.’ You think I am making this up, but Alexander Graham Bell’s very first sales pamphlet of 1877 actually said the following about the telephone: ‘Communication is much more rapid, the average number of words transmitted in a minute by the Morse sounder being from fifteen to twenty, and by telephone from one to two hundred.’ In other words nothing changes; Bell sold the telephone as a broadband service exactly 10 times faster than the telegraph.

Now you may think all this is whimsical, yet this week through my letterbox dropped a leaflet from NTL, offering me broadband. The picture on the front was of a goofy looking monkey, with the strap line ‘go bananas, get broadband.’ You would have thought after ITV Digital no communications company would dare use a monkey again.

I can see the monkey becoming the raven of media companies, a foreboding ape of doom. As Edgar Allen Poe might have said, ‘Do the bonds still value have? Nevermore, quoth the gibbon, nevermore’.

Anyway, NTL pointed out they were cheaper and faster. My heart leapt at the thought I was about to be offered 1 or 2 mb, but no, in NTL’s own words ‘faster than BT, AOL, and Freeserve, an amazing 600k compared to 512K!’

So NTL’s extra 88kb makes it roughly 14% faster than BT, but both companies use the same headline of being 10x faster than dial up. Now 14% faster would gladden Schumacher’s heart and dominate formula one. But is totally unnoticeable on a domestic PC, especially once you factor in network issues and contention rates. To all intents and purposes there is no difference between 512 and 600k.

On paper one is faster than the other, but why do telephone-marketing departments take a perfectly good award-winning product, and then make claims a razor’s edge from falsehood?

Telephone marketing departments can’t help themselves. Combine a product where there is no difference between the suppliers except price, with a group of marketeers, all of whom wear the Andrex puppy as their cap badge and have been trained in the soap wars by Unilever via the Iraqi Ministry of information, and you end up with total tele-bollocks.

When I had a telephone-marketing department it was just the same, they were putting the fear of God into motorists by standing on the side of the A3 handing out replica speed tickets to sell broadband.

Motorists would then yell, ‘You have killed all the trees in my street, cut off my neighbour three times for no reason, and now you are giving me a heart attack with a false speeding ticket and you want me to buy what, exactly?’ To my marketing department, customers were people who had failed to rebel against BT - Bathist Telephone - and had to be liberated. As there is no such thing as bad soldiers, only bad generals, it was clearly my fault. I just couldn’t communicate with them.

I eventually realised what the problem was; in our twenties we are starting our careers, we are corporate children, then suddenly in our late twenties we get a pay rise, a promotion, and get to run the marketing department. We have hit corporate puberty with surging hormones of ambition.

Those of you who have teenagers know exactly what I mean. One day you have children, the next day they leave earth for three years, and are replaced by aliens with a monosyllabic grasp of the language.

At work you get, ‘Please Dad, am I nearly a CEO yet? Can I take the company for a spin?’ And then you go home and it’s, ‘Please Dad, I wanna be a Goth, can I paint my room black?’ Then next morning back at work the head of marketing says, ‘Please Dad, can we re-brand the company and call it Earth, so I can be head of marketing for Earth?’

Well, combine those thoughts with the essential factoid that the average age of a Viking raiding party was 16, and then imagine your marketing department all in furs and helmets with horns and you see the problem.

Corporate adolescence in career terms is like surviving your teens. If you can get through it without simultaneously combining handfuls of drugs with motorcycles you get to be a ripe old age and become the chairman.

But if your life is like mine, if it’s not kids, it’s the aging relatives doing daft things. Likewise at work you find your Chairman turning into a cross between Homer’s dad and old Mr Grace, wandering the office saying, ‘You have all done very well’, and then turning to a particularly firm young woman and saying, “Can I take you to lunch and discuss African rhythms with you?’

You know you have a problem when the Chairman says to the team installing his cable television, “I live at the top of Highgate - will the picture be all right as the signal has to flow uphill?”

To be fair, that is an intuitive thought but the trouble with science and technology is it is counter-intuitive; if it were intuitive we could all be Einstein. So as we start 3G and the great wireless adventure it’s worth noting that technology never goes as you expect it to. For example, in the early 50’s many members of the ‘left’ thought nuclear power wonderful, as it meant no longer would men have to go down the mines. Not the view 30 years later.

In 1898 a conference of Municipal Engineers in Birmingham resolved “that the introduction and use of efficient motor vehicles should be encouraged by urban authorities for the general improvement of the sanitary conditions of our streets and towns”.

So Ken Livingston’s predecessors desperately wanted the motorcar, because horses jammed the roads covering them in filth, which bred diphtheria-carrying flies that killed more children than motorcars ever did. Not a current view.

Telephone started with similar confused expectations, in a way voice was the SMS text of the early phone, a piece of functionality that took time to grasp. Yes you could talk on the phone but why, given messenger boys and a decent postal system, would you want to? A question that many feel has never been satisfactorily answered.

Nobody was quite sure what you were meant to do with the telephone, was it for talking or entertaining? Typical was the demonstration to Queen Victoria on January 16th 1878 at Osbourne on the Isle of White. Bell was beside the Queen in the main house, and spoke to Sir Thomas Biddulph who was in a nearby cottage, then Bell handed the phone to the Queen saying, ‘It’s for you.’ Can you imagine, you have never experienced long distance voice communication, it has never been part of any collective experience, and then you are asked to talk into a lump of wood with an iron diaphragm? You look like George III talking to the trees.

People did not get the telephone, and for six months after it was patented and demonstrated the press ignored it. The Times eventually describing the telephone as ‘American humbug’ invented by an ‘impostor' a ‘ventriloquist’ and a ‘crank’ who says he can ‘talk through wire’. Obviously that journalist got headhunted by the Daily Mail.

Like broadband, the early telephone had to be experienced to be understood.

So back at Osbourne, Victoria exchanges a few regal words, and then from the cottage they sing ‘Coming through the rye’, and read from ‘As You Like It’. As the evening goes on, the network is connected to Cowes, where they sing, to Southampton, where they blow a bugle, and to London,where they play an Organ. Thus setting in stone the Radio 3 schedule.

If, like me, you have been amazed with the immediacy of communications from Iraq, then this demonstration in 1878 was 100 times more wondrous, as nothing had ever prepared them for it.

But in this demonstration lay the concept that the telephone was also about entertainment. Not long after this they laid phone lines in Paris so you could subscribe to the Opera.

What is all this? It’s proto 3G. Like Bell’s early telephone, nobody really knows what 3G does. The mobile phone companies are worrying what content they should have to drive connections. I would suggest downloading Beckham’s latest goal on your mobile is up there with an organ from London.

The mobile phone companies are looking for product that gives their network an edge over their rivals. The cable companies in the early 90s hunted for exclusive content that would give them an edge over Sky. They couldn’t find it, and nor will the mobile phone companies; for the simple reason any piece of software powerful enough to make a difference will look to maximise its distribution. In other words, no matter how much you offer Eric Clapton he won’t agree to put all his recordings exclusively on mini disc. The other rule is that networks seeking exclusivity slow overall growth, as the consumer just sits and waits for unification. As can be seen in Sky versus BSB and VHS versus Beta.

The 3G companies need a unified approach to network driving software. 3G companies are telephone companies; telephone companies are signal transmission businesses, the second they get into software they have moved into the entertainment business, and telephone companies are not trained for that. There you are on the operating table, about to have your brain opened, the anaesthetic is making the lights go dim and in the blur you don’t recognise the surgeon. You mumble, ‘Who are you?’ And he replies ‘Don’t worry, I’m the scalpel manufacturer, about to perform my first diversification.’

I doubt proprietary entertainment software will make much difference to the early development of 3G. 3G will be driven first and foremost like any other telephone product by the ease with which it allows the consumer to create their own messages, only after that will access to data be important.

Bell’s phone was about transmitting your voice, the words of your life. Fax was about transmitting your letters, the commitments of your life, SMS is about transmitting the footnotes and flirtations of your life, and initially 3G will be about pictures, the illustrations of your life.

After the semaphore and telegraph, the telephone was a communications reformation, as the telephone was a protestant device; only in the sense that it was the first form of distance communication that did not need an operator or a priest, - utilising code be it Latin or Morse - between you and with whom you were communicating.

As Bell summed it up in his 1877 sales pamphlet, “no skilled operator is required but direct communication may be had by speech without the intervention of a third person.” A Calvinist concept if ever there was one. In fact one company so believed in the protestant philosophy of telephony that they borrowed its Northern Irish colour with the slogan ‘The Future is bright the future is … Orange’.

What has driven telephone is the fact that the consumer has provided the software. Even the Internet is driven by E-mail, and it is this ability to communicate directly person to person that we have always enthusiastically and in-elastically paid for. You only have to look at how we tolerate being ripped off on SMS texts to realise that we will pay any thing for contact.

I have no doubt that 3G will be a success once the pricing is right, and my mobile addicted teenage daughter and my libidinous 60 year old friend both get over their fear about what mobile video phones will reveal about their lives.

However, you don’t need a lot of bandwidth to talk, or to text, or even to send moving pictures. So where does broadband fit into all this, especially once higher speeds are common and cheap? In Japan no self respecting ADSL service would offer less than 8mb.

The arrival of mobile digital phone, and to a lesser degree competition in the local loop, has reduced fixed wire services to questions of just price and quantity - and has made them a commodity. This will eventually be the fate of wireless, as all worthwhile technology seeks ubiquity, and the nearer you get to ubiquity the more it becomes a commodity. Technology always starts expensive, gets cheaper, and goes everywhere.

As an example, it took the disc brake fifty years to go from high priced automotive exotica, to standard issue on a £150 Halford’s mountain bike and this is also true of cars, fridges, TV sets, DVD players and atomic bombs.

I am not saying you can buy an atomic bomb at Halfords, but I am saying the trick in any tech endeavour is to make your money while your product commands a decent premium and before it reaches ubiquity.

If you can’t stop your product reaching ubiquity then try and be a monopoly. As John Malone used to say there is nothing wrong with a monopoly if you own it.

Which is of course what the fixed wire telephone companies did for as long as possible. But wireless ended the 100-year tech premium of the fixed wire companies. The tech premium, that extra we pay for product lust as opposed to product need, for the convenience of telephone mobility, for making the telephone an even more personal device, has shifted to wireless. Wireless will enjoy this privileged position for some time.

But Moore’s law, which predicts a doubling of chip capacity every two years until at least 2018, means that your haymaking time in the sun gets ever shorter.

A good example, in case you hadn’t noticed, is that the VCR is stone cold dead, it is now a zombie product, killed by the fact that Moore’s law has meant the arrival of cheap hard drives from MP3 devices to PVRs.

It even affects entertainment programming as digital technology means that the cost of transmission has fallen so dramatically that anybody can start a TV station. There are no barriers to entry, just look at the plethora of shopping channels to see how true this is, or how MTV’s UK subscription revenues have been commoditised and shrunk by EMAP and Sky’s new music services.

Thus it goes on, Freeview may well mean a digital future where free to air channels rule, and the niche subscription fodder of basic pay programming on Sky and Cable, i.e. Challenge, Sci Fi, Men and Motors and others, wither and die. Suddenly we may flip from a US to a German model of pay television, and that supports far fewer services.

A future with massive cheap domestic digital storage makes the future of a library channel like UK Gold questionable, as we will all have bagged the show the first time round and stored it in our PVR library. What does the world look like if we can all have IBM’s new four inch by five inch cartridge that stores a terabyte, and when does this happen?

If you are wondering what this speech is about it can be summed up in a simple sentence. If your product isn’t propitiatory it had better be cheap, and if it’s cheap it had better be everywhere, now! And as a statement of reflective hindsight we didn’t manage either of those things in UK cable.

One last Ozymandian thought, and that is not an MTV reference, funny thing how the lead often changes with each new iteration of technology, transistors gave Sony the chance to eclipse that valve based giant RCA, wireless meant that Vodaphone became the new BT, and ironically in MP3, Apple’s Ipod is the new Sony Walkman.

How do you avoid this fate? I don’t know, but whatever it is, as with all science it is likely to be counter intuitive, and I leave you with this thought. The most successful act ever undertaken by a species to ensure a huge and sustained increase in their population was on the day that Turkeys did vote for Christmas.

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