Can US Ignite Succeed Where Other Efforts Have Failed?

Last Thursday, The White House announced the launch of US Ignite, a new initiative whose goal is to spur better broadband and applications to take advantage of it. It brings in some heavy players including UTOPIA and UEN from our own state, incumbents like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, and tech giants like Mozilla, Cisco, and Juniper. I know I should get excited about something like this, but the best I can muster up is ambivalence.

In many cases, a consortium will often fall victim to the selfish interests of individual members. Many of us will remember how Rambus joined JEDEC, seeded the standards with their patent-encumbered technologies, and then went on a spree of lawsuits demanding royalties and licensing fees for using the standards they helped create. Despite eventually losing most of the suits and having a number of their patents invalidated, they pulled an entire technology industry into courtrooms for well over a decade. Most of the players in US Ignite have significant patent portfolios, and make no mistake that many of them participate in standards bodies not because it’s for our own good, but because there’s a buck to be made.

Another problem is that US Ignite has an all-too-standard “big on vision, light on specifics” mission statement. Granted, there are some good ideas in there. Dynamically switching VLANs can open up a bunch of possibilities for service providers. Gigabit and beyond connections are pretty much required for doing any kind of serious heavy lifting. Locally provisioned virtualized computing resources are pretty slick. All of these are really important and good ideas, but they feel more evolutionary than revolutionary.

And then there’s the elephant in the room that nobody really wants to talk about: why don’t we already have these networks in more places? US Ignite seems to assume that the problem is that we don’t have applications to drive demand from end users, so that’s why the networks don’t get built. That, unfortunately, turns the actual problem on its head. Because of the severe lack of competition in the telecommunications space (which is only getting worse as telcos fail to upgrade), networks have no incentive to build those next-generation networks because what they offer now is cheap to build and just good enough to stay marginally competitive with the only other option in town. With the heavy involvement of incumbent operators and their vendors, you’re unlikely to see the barrier of an anti-competitive market get addressed.

I wish US Ignite all the best and hope that they can come up with something useful. That said, I’m kind of resigned to the idea that after the initial fanfare, they’ll fizzle out a die quietly in the corner.