With regard to a mobile network operator (MNO, or operator), the term dumb pipe, or dumb network, refers to an operator’s network being used simply to transfer bytes between the customer’s device and the Internet. The use of the term “dumb” refers to the inability of the operator to restrict services and applications to its own portal and primarily just provide simple bandwidth and network speed.
A dumb network is marked by using intelligent devices (i.e. PCs) at the periphery that make use of a network that does not interfere or manage with an application’s operation / communication. The dumb network concept is the natural outcome of the end to end principle. The Internet was originally designed to operate as a dumb network.
In some circles the dumb network is regarded as a natural culmination of technological progress in network technology. With the justification that the dumb network uniquely satisfies the requirements of the end to end principle for application creation, supporters see the dumb network as uniquely qualified for this purpose as by design, is not sensitive to the needs of applications. The dumb network model can, in some ways, allow for flexibility and ease of innovation in the development of applications that is not matched by other models.
One widely regarded example of the operator “dumb pipe” scenario is Apple’s iPhone. The iPhone enables its users to directly surf the Internet with its mobile Safari browser and connects to Apple’s iTunes Store for purchasing ringtones and music instead of the operator’s own portal. Operators such as AT&T Mobility cannot offer their traditional services (such as downloads of wallpapers, ringtones, games, applications, etc.) as Apple controls the total iPhone user experience. Operators must be content to provide only the network connectivity and bandwidth which the iPhone has tripled in some cities. In addition to losing valuable revenue opportunities with the customer, operators are rumored to pay Apple a percentage of the customer’s monthly bill as well. While the iPhone is a good example of the dumb pipe, not everyone believes it will ultimately be bad for operators.
Another example of the operator dumb pipe / smart pipe dilemma is the upcoming deployment of WiMAX technology. Companies such as Sprint Nextel and Clearwire are looking into ways to deploy WiMAX with additional services to keep them from becoming dumb pipes.
Advocates of dumb networks counter the first argument by pointing out that prioritizing network traffic is very expensive, both in monetary and network performance terms; also, advocates consider this a bandwidth problem and not a network protocol issue. The security argument is that malware is an end-to-end problem and thus should be dealt with at the endpoints, and that attempting to adapt the network to counterattacks is both cumbersome and inefficient.
"In a world of dumb terminals and telephones, networks had to be smart. But in a world of smart terminals, networks have to be dumb."
- George Gilder, in The Coming of the Fibersphere, Forbes ASAP, December 7, 1992
Critics of dumb network architecture posit two arguments in favor of "intelligent" networks. The first, that certain users and transmission needs of certain applications are more important than others and thus should be granted greater network priority or quality of service. An example is that of real time video applications that are more time sensitive than say, text applications. Thus video transmissions would receive network priority to prevent picture skips, while text transmissions could be delayed without significantly affecting its application performance. The second is that networks should be able to defend against attacks by malware and other bad actors.
The dumb network (and the end to end principle) was conceived of as an antithesis to the idea of a centralized intelligent computer network in which all applications were under central network control. A synthesis is taking place in the context aware networks. These networks allow intelligent devices to set up end-to-end applications as in the dumb network. However, they are aware of application needs and in the social and enterprise context in which the applications are being used. Thus the network can make decisions on resource allocation conflicts in light of the collective needs of all users and the purposes (social and enterprise) that guide them.
While there is no real industry standard definition of dumb pipe, it is a generally understood term in the mobile industry. There are numerous blog postings and trade articles which refer to the operator dumb pipe dilemma, some of which are referenced in this article. Others include:
- The Operators vs. the Media Brands
- The Pipe Is Only Dumb If You Make It That Way
- Staying Relevant In A Dumb Pipe Era
A reference which describes the dumb pipe, operator portal (or walled garden), as well as the smart pipe is a report from Juniper Research titled Business Models for Mobile Content Players, Strategic Options & Scenarios 2007-2012:
The author is not affiliated with Juniper in any way, and although the full report requires purchase, there are a number of summaries available on the web:
- Smart-Pipe Strategy to Provide MNOs with 31% Share of $188bn Mobile Content Market by 2012
- Study About MNOs Share of Mobile Content Market
- Mobile Entertainment in Western Europe
A Google search will list several more:
- Rise of the Stupid Network, original release May 1997, by David S. Isenberg of AT&T Labs Research that explains several dumb network concepts.