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One flew over the Internet

Joe McGarvey, Current Analysis

The net neutrality dispute, when reduced to its core elements, is nothing more than another round in the protracted battle between Netheads and Bellheads.

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Long before the Internet went commercial in the early-to-mid-1990s and later matured into a global distribution network for commerce and communications, network engineers had been feuding with telecommunications engineers over the best way to build networks and deliver services. In the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it environment that marks today’s communications industry, it’s comforting to know that some things stay the same: The so-called Netheads and Bellheads are still at it. In fact, it could be argued that the fighting is as fierce as ever — and the stakes have never been higher.

What has changed over the past decade is the relative position of each camp. Ten years ago, Netheads were the upstarts. At that time, the World Wide Web was well on its way to being a major commercial success and the obvious platform for electronic publishing and distribution. Conventional wisdom, however, still held that conversational and real-time-oriented services as well as electronic links between enterprises would require — and would always require — the rigidness and reliability of Ma Bell and its international equivalents.

As early as the middle of this decade, however, the tide began to turn and the Internet Protocol, the lingua franca of the Netheads, was on its way to becoming the future bearer of all voice, video and data services — real-time and enterprise-bound included. Now in the uncomfortable position of antiquated outsider, Bellheads are fighting to stay relevant in a communications industry that is quickly transitioning into an Internet-based model. Their last-gasp effort, then, is characterized by an attempt to turn the tables on Netheads by imposing the rigidness and predictability of the telecom network on the Internet. This latest struggle between Netheads and Bellheads has been most prominently represented by a three-letter acronym: IMS.

The IP multimedia subsystem carries the connotation of being either essential or superfluous, depending on the perspective. Bellheads, of course, see the IMS architecture as a successor to the signaling system seven (SS7) infrastructure that delivered a mechanism for gracefully managing the control side of the PSTN. The SS7 network (a packet-based network, by the way), created a universal standard that enabled carriers to offer their customers the ability to communicate — using voice or messaging — with virtually any other owner of a phone, regardless of the carrier that offered the service. From the Bellhead standpoint, IMS represents the ability to bring to the public Internet the reliability and predictability of circuit-based communications systems, as well as enable interoperability across carrier networks.

Netheads, or backers of an Internet-based computing model, see IMS in a superfluous light, adding complexity and costs that will only hinder innovation. At the extreme, Netheads view IMS as nefarious, a blight upon a pristine ecosystem that will empower the owners of local transport pipes to erect toll booths or road blocks between ISPs and subscribers.

For those looking to put the dispute between telcos and Internet-based service providers in an allegorical context, 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fits the bill. Think of the Bellheads as Nurse Ratched, an uptight control freak who worships at the temple of status quo. Representing the Netheads, of course, is Jack Nicolson’s McMurphy, the out-of-control free spirit and world-class mischief-maker. IMS, at least from the perspective of the Netheads, is the equivalent of the lobotomy that Nurse Ratched wields to restore order to the asylum by severing McMurphy from his source of inspiration.

The bad news for Netheads is that a frontal-lobe lobotomy of the Internet is all but assured. While the industry still echoes of controversy around the adoption of IMS, voices of opposition are not coming from the Bellhead community. Telecom operators, as has been clear for (at least) the past year, are marching lockstep toward IMS-based architectures. That telcos would not adopt IMS has always been wishful thinking on the part of those who rightfully view IMS as a potential roadblock to their financial interests. telecom operators, on the other hand, recognize the adoption of IMS, along with a modern service delivery platform and Web services strategy, as a means to insert themselves into the Internet-based service delivery chain at a higher position than mere transport providers.

IMS, despite its staggered start, has never really been in jeopardy of not succeeding and being adopted by network operators. The opposition to the architecture has always come from the anti-telecom side of the industry. The “debate” over the relevance/need for IMS has primarily been about perspective. And since Nurse Ratched owns the infrastructure, it’s her perspective that will prevail. The only hope for McMurphy this time around is if the FCC can reverse the lobotomy.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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