The birds and the bees of broadband

The “facts of life” are important to get right if you want reality-based broadband regulation. What if you make a fundamental error in understanding?

The Schrödinger lecture theatre, Trinity College Dublin, waiting for audience to arrive.

If you can, I would like you to transport yourself back in time, all the way to the late 1970s. Picture, if you will, a young Martin — a cute freckled boy with golden ginger hair — sat on the sofa in the living room. Alongside him is his (possibly self-conscious) father. They live in a then-new 1970s semi-detached house not far from Heathrow airport.

In front of us is a volume of the Mitchell Beazley encyclopaedia. These things were expensive, and I think our copy was a discounted one from the remaindered book shop, due to some damage to the covers. We were not a wealthy family, but my parents highly valued literacy and knowledge. After all, my father had left school at 15 with no qualifications.

It was that moment which every parent is obliged to face: telling the facts of life to your offspring. Where do those babies, lambs and puppies all come from? With respect to human biology, the illustrations were clear and concise. You really couldn’t get it wrong. My father, being an aircraft maintenance engineer, was certainly adept at describing the mechanics of the whole encounter.

Man — up and in. Swimmy thing. Tiny egg. Bingo — embryo. Grows like a bulb planted in the garden. Ripens into a baby. Which somehow makes its way out, despite the implausible aperture. New child arrives in the world. Ta da! Didn’t take long to describe. I was a bright kid, hungry to learn, so took it all in easily.

This data wasn’t really news to me, given that I had a younger brother: it was clear who and where he came out of. (Side story: on being told as a 3 year old that I was going to have a sibling, my first reaction was “But what about my toys!”. You know what? I was right on the money with that concern!)

My father can quite rightly be proud of having discharged his manly duty. And to this day, I’ve never confessed to him that there was significant aspect of the matter that I failed to grasp at the time. Something absolutely figural, where a single misconception fundamentally transformed one’s understanding, and not necessarily for the better.

You see, to me as a little boy, when mummy and daddy went to bed to sleep together, that was it. The idea that sex happened whilst they were awake and aware was, shall we say, counter-intuitive. After all, why else would men have a little slit in their pyjamas below the button? Babies were just a natural consequence of grown men lying down next to grown women, whose nighties could easily rise above the waist. Sex was just the inevitable rubbing against each other in the night when fidgeting about.

That the whole thing might be done for fun and pleasure was, well, simply unthinkable! (In retrospect, this misunderstanding of causality may explain a lot of troubles in my life.) Naturally, over time, I eventually twigged what the truth was. I can cut myself some extra slack, too, as I wasn’t batting for the same team as my father had assumed!

Now, there’s a reason for telling you this tale, beyond having a good laugh at my expense. Earlier this week I was invited to go to Dublin to join a panel to discuss “net neutrality”. It was a public session in the evening, run as an adjunct to the Optical Network Design and Modelling conference (a subject I know nothing about!). I had stored up this story, but didn’t get a chance to deploy it at the time.

The problem with “net neutrality” is that it makes a “birds and bees” error, one as big as the one I did as a little boy. It is so fundamental that it completely upends any other aspect of the arguments being made. Because the world that is ubiquitously described in the academic literature implicitly defines a “clockwork” packet network that is highly deterministic.

Whilst such things can conceivably exist, the resulting policies about “discrimination” and “throttling” are about as helpful as prescribing sleeping pills as contraceptives. Whilst not absolutely ineffective, it is not something that can be related to the real world in general. You can imagine what it must be like dealing with this crazy misconception as a computer scientist: it’s maddening that subject matter confidence and competence are so frequently confused!

So how exactly do you communicate that the broadband policy community needs to “wake up” to the performance facts of life?

When doing spectrum policy, there is a solid foundation of physics that is not a matter of contention. Nobody asks for radio waves to bend to the rules of the regulator, only to the laws of the cosmos. Yet in broadband, we have just that perverse situation. Somehow the public will only turn up with exceptional corner cases of “violations” that are easy to adjudicate. By ignoring all the randomness, emergence, and possibility of non-determinism, you eliminate most of reality from consideration.

For a kid of six or seven to misunderstand the birds and the bees is excusable. But for institutions like BEREC and even the FCC (under previous management, I hasten to add), it is inexcusable. The problem is, you now have lots of adult academics, analysts, lawyers and politicians who vigorously advocate for the digital equivalent of “sex is only for sleep”. How do you begin to break it to them that this is a childish fantasy, unbefitting to their age and authority?

We need to get our “illustrated encyclopaedia of broadband” written down, so that the “birds and the bees” of performance are captured and verified. Then we need to have processes that filter policy-making input, so that only those who are “awake” get to input into the technical foundations. Whatever policies of fairness and justice the lawyers come up with have to be described in terms that can be objectively defined and easily enforced in the real world.

Millions of well-meaning (but uninformed) comments from the public are no substitute for a single scientific subject matter authority. You cannot enforce “neutrality” by vague appeals to  magical measurement methods — just as you cannot limit population growth by issuing elasticated pyjamas without that little slit below the waist button.

At least, I don’t think you can. Can you?

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