Saturday, January 07, 2006

Broadband Futures 4 – Rethinking the Categories

My previous posts have made certain assumptions about the structure of the US Internet debate. While the “pipes vs. content” view is commonly used, it locks one into a worldview that may not yield the most creative solution. Looking at the players in different ways reveals unexpected alliances, eg Comcast and Yahoo vs. boingboing and Disney.

In Broadband Futures 1 - Who Pays? I listed the following key players: customers, network operators, and content providers. One can further subdivide each of these categories:
  1. ‘Passive’ customers, who want to access entertainment, and ‘active’ customers, who participate in a peer-to-peer web of content production

  2. Cable companies (eg Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner) and telephone companies (eg Verizon, SBC/AT&T, BellSouth)

  3. ‘Establishment’ content providers (eg eBay, Google, Disney), and ‘independent’ content providers (eg the ‘active’ customers above, and sites/services like bittorrent, torrentreactor, boingboing, digg).

The underlying assumption in this categorization is that the world is divided into transport and content. This is the conventional classification:
Pipes – Content
The flaws in this assumption lead to other categorizations. (I’ll stick with binary divisions for now; breaking out of a dichotomy is another useful exercise.)

Cable companies view themselves as the providers of an integrated entertainment and communications service to their customers. They’re not just a dumb pipe, they would contend; they add value by aggregating content into bundles their customers want to consume. The telephone companies have traditionally been Pipes, not Aggregators, but they’re adopting the latter stance as they begin to compete with the cable companies in video entertainment. This leads to the following categorization:
Aggregators – Originators
At first blush this classification doesn’t significantly change the players in the Pipes/Content view – one might say it’s just a change of name. However, many players in the Content group are more aggregators than originators, like Yahoo and MSN, link compendiums like and digg, and directories like mininova and ed2k-it.

The distinction between passive and active consumers points to division between centrally controlled commerce and ad hoc, distributed mass media. Let’s call this classification:
Oligarchs – Productive Masses
The ‘oligarchs’ are the large companies with economies of scale; the ‘masses’ are the bubbling multitudes for whom the Internet has given a distribution medium they didn’t have before. This division splits up the aggregators into Comcast and Yahoo on one side, and (before its acquisition by Yahoo – a telling development…) and bittorrent on the other. Large studios like Disney fall on the one side, and small independents on the other.

Another way to break open the conventional categorization is to consider:
Facilities – No Facilities
The netops are clearly facilities owners, and consumers don’t own network facilities. However, some of the content players do own network facilities (Yahoo, eBay), while others (Disney, boingboing) don’t. Large P2P operations like bittorrent and ED2K are large facilities in aggregate, but they are amorphous; they don’t fit easily into either category, but I treat them as facilities owners.

One can keep going indefinitely, but I’ll stop here with only a mention of a few other classification options that can refine this analysis:
  • Retail content (eBay) vs. Media content (Yahoo)
  • Brick-based retail (Wal-mart) vs. pure online retail (Amazon)

One can summarize these shifts in a table. For simplicity I’ve picked some specific outfits to represent larger constellations:
  • Comcast: network operators, representing cable operators as well as telcos like Verizon and BellSouth

  • Yahoo: portal, ecommerce and search, representing the likes of Google, eBay, Amazon and MSN

  • Boingboing: independent content producers – the blogosphere

  • Disney: established content producers, representing the music and video studios

  • Bittorrent: a placeholder for a constellation of P2P players and technologies, including content directories like mininova and applications like Azureus
Here's a table of with examples of players in the various classifications:

Distinction A – B

Category A

Category B

Pipes – Content


Yahoo, bittorrent, boingboing, Disney

Aggregators – Originators

Comcast, Yahoo, bittorrent

boingboing, Disney

Oligarchs – Productive Masses

Comcast, Yahoo, Disney

boingboing, bittorrent

Facilities – No Facilities

Comcast, Yahoo, bittorrent

Disney, boingboing

One can see some consistency in the way I’ve arranged the table: Comcast (and its ilk) is always on the left, and boingboing (& Co) is always on the right. However, unusual alignments also appear, eg Comcast, Yahoo and bittorrent vs. boingboing and Disney in the “Aggregators-Originators” perspective.

In fact, boingboing and Disney are aligned more often than not: this is ironic given the high profile “copyfight” argument that pits the establishment and independent content providers against each other. When it comes to network neutrality, Jack Valenti and Cory Doctorow will need to find a way to work together in their common interest (see King Content vs. the Copyfighters and From copyfight to copytruce)