The Problem With Dumb Pipes

By Trevor Gilbert , written on February 27, 2012

From The News Desk

Earlier this month, I was trying to upload a photo to Instagram in San Francisco. It took 5 minutes before I gave up. Do you know how long it takes to do this normally? 30 seconds, tops. I was angry, and I realized that all I want is a better carrier. A more innovative carrier. A smarter carrier.

Carrier-related problems have been talked about ad nauseum for years, and during that entire time, there has been one request. That for all of the political wrangling and network incompatibilities, and data-capping, and App Store censorship, the customers at large only want one thing: a dumb pipe.

The argument is that carriers have a responsibility to carry data to and fro, with no interference, just like energy and water utilities. That they shouldn't be allowed to slow down speeds, and they shouldn't be allowed to interfere on an OS-level. This would mean that you get your data, your phone connection and nothing else. Sounds great!

Except, when you think about it, when was the last time you saw innovation in the utilities market. When was the last time that you got your water and thought, "Hey, was this water delivered over old technologies or is this 4G water?" Never, because the way water was delivered 10 years ago is the same as it is delivered right now. There is no innovation in the utilities market.

That there is no innovation in the utilities market is okay, but stopping innovation in the carrier market is not. Imagine a world where we can only call on phones. Dumb phones if you will. Do you know who was essential in making sure that dumb phones turned into smartphones? Carriers. Know who was critical in going from text messages to data? Carriers. They did this with the money they got through less-than-loveable means.

If AT&T suddenly decided to start acting like a dumb-pipe, it would have significantly less money than it does now. Less revenue means less profit, less profit means less innovation. Less innovation means that instead of having progressively faster speeds over the years, we get stuck at a point, with only very slow and incremental improvements.

That's what it all comes down to, if you're paying attention. The money. You may think that AT&T slows down speeds because it really likes to be mean and hates the customer. In truth, it is because it needs to make money to exist at all. It needs to grow to survive. Not every company can be Apple, and make products that not only are profitable but lovable. Some companies are relegated to the role of simple profit-seeking. A role that doesn't endear it to the public, but one that does generally get shareholders on board.

If the carriers stopped politicking and making unpopular (and money-making) decisions, and instead became a true-dumb pipe, we may be happy in the short-term. No data caps, no throttling, no interfering with App Stores! A dream come true! However, in the long-term, though, we need the carriers. As much as it pains me to say it, we do need them.

We need them to not only provide mobile access to the Internet, but we need them to keep innovating. We need them to keep at it, so that when video is replaced with interactive artificial-intelligence 3D video in 25 years, we can continue to upload files at quick speeds. If you think uploading a photo to Instagram is slow on 3G or 4G, just wait until the files get bigger - because they will - while the connection speeds stay the same.

This may be an unpopular position, defending the carriers, but in the end the problem with dumb pipes is that they're...dumb.

[Image Credit: Equipment, Cables And Piping As Found Inside Of A Modern Industrial Power Plant via Shutterstock]