Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of taking two days off the grid and heading to a music festival called Coachella. Now, when I say “off the grid,” I mean time away from my normal work life (yes, I tend to work a bit on the weekends), and my normal family life (I usually reserve the balance of weekends for family, this was the first couple of days “alone” I’ve had in more than a year.)
What I most certainly did not want to be was off the information grid – the data lifeline that all of us so presumptively leverage through our digital devices. But for the entire time I was at the festival, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened – to me, and to most of the 85,000 or so other people trying to use their smartphones while at the show.
I’m not writing this post to blame AT&T (my carrier), or Verizon, or the producers of Coachella, though each have some part to play in the failure that occurred last weekend (and most likely will occur again this weekend, when Coachella produces its second of two festival weekends). Rather, I’m deeply interested in how this story came about, why it matters, and what, if anything, can be done about it.
First, let’s set some assumptions. When tens of thousands of young people (the average age of a Coachella fan is in the mid to low 20s) gather in any one place in the United States, it’s a safe bet these things are true:
- Nearly everyone has a smartphone in their possession.
- Nearly everyone plans on using that smartphone to connect with friends at the show, as well as to record, share, and amplify the experience they are having while at the event.
- Nearly everyone knows that service at large events is awful, yet they hope their phone will work, at least some of the time. Perhaps a cash-rich sponsor will pay to bring in extra bandwidth, or maybe the promoter will spring for it out of the profit from ticket sales. Regardless, they expect some service delays, and plan on using low-bandwidth texting services more than they’d like to.
- Nearly everyone leaves a show like Coachella unhappy with their service provider, and unable to truly express themselves in ways they wished they could. Those ways might include, in no particular order: Communicating with friends so as to meet up (“See you at the Outdoor stage, right side middle, for Grace Potter!”), tweeting or Facebooking a message to followers (“Neon Indian is killing it right now!”), checking in on Foursquare or any other location service so as to gain value in a social game (or in my case, to create digital breadcrumbs to remind me who I was once in hit dotage), uploading photos to any number of social photo services like Instagram, or using new, music-specific apps like TastemakerX on a whim (“I’d like to buy 100 shares of Yuck, those guys just blew me away!”). Oh, and it’d be nice to make a phone call home if you need to.
But for the most part, I and all my friends were unable to do any of these things at Coachella last weekend, at least not in real time. I felt as if I was drinking from a very thin, very clogged cocktail straw. Data service was simply non existent onsite. Texts came in, but more often than not they were timeshifted: I’d get ten texts delivered some 20 minutes after they were sent. And phone service was about as good as it is on Sand Hill Road – spotty, prone to drops, and often just not available. I did manage to get some data service while at the show, but that was because I found a press tent and logged onto the local wifi network there, or I “tricked” my phone into thinking it was logging onto the network for the first time (by turning “airplane mode” off and on over and over again).
This all left me wondering – what if? What if there was an open pipe, both up and down, that could handle all that traffic? What if everyone who came to the show knew that pipe would be open, and work? What kind of value would have been created had that been the case? How much more data would have populated the world, how much richer would literally millions of people’s lives been for seeing the joyful expressions of their friends as they engaged in a wonderful experience? How much more learning might have countless startups gathered, had they been able to truly capture the real time intentions of their customers at such an event?
In short, how much have we lost as a society because we’ve failed to solve our own bandwidth problems?
I know, it’s just a rock festival, and jeez Battelle, shut off your phone and just dance, right? OK, I get that, I trust me, I did dance, a lot. But I also like to take a minute here or there to connect to the people I love, or who follow me, and share with them my passions and my excitement. We are becoming a digital society, to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. And with very few exceptions, it was just not possible to intermingle the digital and the physical at Coachella. (I did hear reports that folks with Verizon were having better luck, but that probably because there were fewer Verizon iPhones than those with AT&T. And think about that language – “luck”?!).
Way back in 2008, when the iPhone was new and Instagram was a gleam in Kevin Systrom’s eye, I was involved in creating a service called CrowdFire. It was a way for fans at a festival (the first was Outside Lands) to share photos, tweets, and texts in a location and event specific way. I’ve always rued our decision to not spin CrowdFire out as a separate company, but regardless, my main memory of the service was how crippled it was due to bandwidth failure. It was actually better than Coachella, but not by much. So in four years, we’ve managed to go backwards when it comes to this problem.
Of course, the amount of data we’re using has exploded, so credit to the carriers for doing their best to keep up. But can they get to the promised land? I wonder, at least under the current system of economic incentives we’ve adopted in the United States. Sure, there will always be traffic jams, but have we really thought through the best approach to how we execute “the Internet in the sky?”
Put another way, do we not hold the ability to share who we are, our very digital reflections, as a commons to which all of us should have equal access?
As I was driving to the festival last Saturday, I engaged in a conversation with one of my fellow passengers about this subject. What do we, as a society, hold in commons, and where do digital services fit in, if at all?
Well, we were driving to Coachella on city roads, held in commons through municipalities, for one. And we then got on Interstate 10 for a few miles, which is held in commons by federal agencies in conjunction with local governments. So it’s pretty clear we have, as a society, made the decision that the infrastructure for the transport of atoms – whether they be cars and the humans in them, or trucks and the commercial goods within them – is held in a public commons.Sure, we hit some traffic, but it wasn’t that bad, and there were ways to route around it.
What else do we hold in a commons? We ticked off the list of stuff upon we depend – the transportation of water and power to our homes and our businesses, for example. Those certainly are (mostly) held in the public commons as well.
So it’s pretty clear that over the course of time, we’ve decided that when it comes to moving ourselves around, and making sure we have power and water, we’re OK with the government managing the infrastructure. But what of bits? What of “ourselves” as expressed digitally?
For the “hardwired” Internet – the place that gave us the Web, Google, Facebook, et al, we built upon what was arguably a publicly common infrastructure. Thanks to government and social normative regulation, the hard-wired Internet was architected to be open to all, with a commercial imperative that insured bandwidth issues were addressed in a reasonable fashion (Cisco, Comcast, etc.).
But with wireless, we’ve taken what is a public asset – radio spectrum – and we’ve licensed it to private companies under a thicket of regulatory oversight. And without laying blame – there’s probably plenty of it to go around – we’ve proceeded to make a mess of it. What we have here, it seems to me, is a failure. Is it a market failure – which usual preceeds government action? I’m not sure that’s the case. But it’s a fail, nevertheless. I’d like to get smarter on this issue, even though the prospect of it makes my head hurt.
As I wrote yesterday, I recently spent some time in Washington DC, and sat down with the Obama administration’s point person on that question, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. As I expected, the issue of spectrum allocation is extraordinarily complicated, and it’s unlikely we’ll find a way out of the “Coachella Fail-ble” anytime soon. But there is hope. Technological disruption is one way – watch the “white spaces,” for instance. And in a world where marketing claims to be “the fastest” spur customer switching, our carriers are madly scrambling to upgrade their networks. Yet in the US, wireless speeds are far below those of countries in Europe and Asia.
I plan on finding out more as I report, but I may as well ask you, my smarter readers: Why is this the case? And does it have anything to do with what those other countries consider to be held in “digital commons”?
I’ll readily admit I’m simply a journeyman asking questions here, not a firebrand looking to lay blame. I understand this is a complicated topic, but it’s one for which I’d love your input and guidance.