Identifying the spark that started the American or industrial revolution is a matter of great debate among historians. The birthday for the information revolution, on the other hand, is much easier to pinpoint: January 1, 1984. On that New Year’s Day, the consent decree between the US Department of Justice and AT&T became effective. The result of United States v. AT&T splintered the former telephone monopoly into seven independent local entities and one long-distance company. It was the “call heard ‘round the world” as competition and its offspring, innovation, surged. The information age was born!
As the new AT&T started to fight off competitors, the regional Bell companies had customers for the first time. Long distance upstarts like MCI and Sprint needed access to their local Bell infrastructure. But where would these newcomers interconnect their long-distance networks with the last mile of these new local monopolies? The answer was in the “Bell central office,” a rather benign sounding term that connotes a public place where interested parties could meet and freely conduct business. However, it was anything but a free-flowing business environment. Instead, the new long distance players found “Bell heads” whose companies had perfected the art of bureaucracy. They lacked customer and partner-focused systems and had few incentives in place to provide any notion of customer service. At times, they demonstrated outright hostility toward their new customers.
To really improve service and drive innovation, the industry needed an alternative to the local network and a truly independent meeting place where all participants could compete on a level playing field for new business. In response to the latter, the Meet-Me Room (MMR) was created. Here, in a neutral location, competitive telephony providers could interconnect their respective networks to complete the communications path necessary to support their customers’ needs.
Competitor became customer as the telecommunications industry exploded in growth.
The term “co-opetition” was coined to define this rather unusual relationship between market participants.
The first MMR’s were typically in locations that served a similar purpose where undersea cable systems landed and interconnected to the former telephone company of the U.S. – AT&T. Addresses like One Wilshire in Los Angeles and 60 Hudson Street in New York City became natural convergence points for domestic carriers to meet one another as well. From there, progressive building owners and independent operators could see it was going to be profitable to sell shovels and picks to the gold miners. They opened larger facilities and facilitated more open exchange of traffic, even becoming a place from which to launch new carriers. These locations were known as telco or carrier hotels.
Another branch of the rapidly growing communications banyan tree was the data center. Whether the carriers came first and colocation followed or vice versa is a chicken-orthe-egg kind of debate. These data centers provided a place for customers to house their computing environment in the same location as multiple carriers. Independently-managed, multi-tenant data centers housed a rich choice of telecom carriers without providing one a competitive advantage over another. This became fertile ground for the next growth spurt in innovation.
The ecosystem built to support a competitive telecommunications industry was developed primarily for analog voice calls; however, the same building blocks could be used to share digital data bits as well. These exchange points, housed in data centers and carrier-neutral hotels, became the necessary junctions where networks moved data seamlessly across diverse routes and formed what is now known as the Internet.
One important difference between the interconnection of voice and data networks is settlement—in other words, cash flow. In the voice world, carriers write checks for using another operators’ network. In the brave new world of data exchange the notion of peering was introduced. In essence, a peering relationship is a loosely defined non-economic settlement arrangement where each participant strives to carry as much traffic of others as it off-loads on its peering partner. This barter-like structure is still in place today despite some entertaining and very public disputes between “partners.”
Broadcast television, which long functioned separately from the voice and data communications networks, is now becoming a real media mash-up with the Internet. “Over-the-top” streaming media, which is video delivered over a broadband Internet connection instead of the traditional cable TV plant, is a massive trend. Consumers’ consumption of video is by far the largest use of the Internet.
Consumers drive over 80% of Internet traffic today and the overwhelming majority of that usage is streaming media.
Netflix is often reported as generating over 30% of the evening Internet traffic. YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Fire TV, Twitch and Roku likewise place huge demands on the Internet infrastructure.
Delivering such immense volumes of rich media across long-haul Internet backbones is both an operational challenge and an expensive proposition. Remember, the Internet was built on the mutually-assured existence of peering. It was not designed to move large files hundreds of miles in one direction with no return traffic. There are no one-way freeways for data hauling – that network doesn’t exist. Put more bluntly, what we currently know as the Internet cannot support the next wave of user requirements and innovation.
To solve these, and other technical problems, progressive content owners have moved copies of their rich content physically closer to the last mile of broadband Internet providers’ networks. The network exchange points that are close to end users are referred to as “the edge.” Today, over half (and growing rapidly) of streaming media is delivered to the end-user using content distribution networks, in other words, through preloaded storage devices located in the customers’ local area. Those content repositories sit at the confluence of the metro communications infrastructure. The latest movie, TV episode or video game only needs to be downloaded once via the long-haul Internet backbones and is then stored locally to be enjoyed by thousands, if not millions, of consumers in the metro area on any device. It is the most efficient way to distribute content in the 21st century.
To support this growth of video traffic, the emerging MMRs must support all communications techniques such as satellite, wireless, wireline and cable at the edges of the network in cities that represent large metropolitan populations. Because the Internet will struggle to support unidirectional streaming media to meet the growing demand for video, the new MMR is morphing into a MediaHub©. Here, content meets the delivery networks built to support end-user requirements.