Whether it’s Verizon courting government contracts for its 5G upgrade, blockchain startups deploying routers with crypto mining incentives, or Elon Musk making Starlink available to the Ukrainian resistance, broadband and internet of things (IoT) are the new battleground for companies, ideologies and visionaries.
This op-ed is part of CoinDesk's Crypto 2023 series.
While it is still too early to tell whether there will be a singular or divergent solution, the new technological framework for interoperability will have ideology embedded in its code. Crypto and freedom advocates should ensure decentralization as a principle is enshrined, and cooperate to realize and expand on Nikola Tesla’s vision of a decentralized, ubiquitous network.
In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse found themselves in an ideological battle over the future of electricity. Threatened by Tesla and Westinghouse’s widely adopted alternating currents (AC) power system, Edison built out his direct-current (DC) stations, while deploying ruthless public relations campaigns to undermine his rivals’ credibility. As the three men urgently took their products to market and built out supporting infrastructure, corporations on the periphery also competed for market share, including Brush Electricity Company – which installed its arc lighting solutions in key regions including New York City.
Tim Kravchunovsky is the Founder and CEO of Chirp. A graduate of Columbia University’s Masters Program, he has over 20 years experience as a network engineer and previously consulted for the World Bank.
The AC system won out and became the gold standard underlying all electrification. An important lesson remains for those developing new architecture: The best technology can triumph only when it is also widely adopted.
After developing the AC system, Tesla devoted much of his life to revolutionizing wireless electricity. The inventor envisioned infinite energy via a global network of towers that would electrify the world without wires. While investors including J.P. Morgan initially backed Tesla’s venture based on his past success with AC electricity, they later cut funding – a system handing such power over to end users, independent of the large companies who clashed during the “War of the Currents,” was too radical for many to handle at the time, and the technology wasn’t in place yet.
Tesla died penniless in New York City, but his vision of ubiquitous energy run across a decentralized wireless system has served as inspiration for scientists, entrepreneurs and world leaders. Founders need to think carefully about the incentive structures that go into building such a system, while resisting centralized parties looking to co-opt its mechanisms under their own infrastructures – the blockchain sector in particular is in a unique position to guard against these attempts.
While there is heroism in Elon Musk – an heir to Tesla’s legacy – stepping in to provide Starlink to Ukrainian citizens, there are also warnings that founders should note. Following Starlink’s deployment, Musk walked back his initial support for the cause and threatened to withdraw the program unless the U.S. Defense Department footed the bill. Although Musk also walked back these comments and kept Starlink operational in the region, the reversal revealed an incentive structure based on geopolitics, profit margins, and a billionaire’s impulses – which millions of innocent people suddenly found themselves tethered to. Musk is hardly an outlier when it comes to the murky relationship between centralized vested interests and state power. Telecom companies provide troves of data on millions of users daily to government entities.
As the original use case of blockchain technology, Bitcoin allows any individual – no matter their socioeconomic class or country of origin – to take custody of their money. When applied to IoT devices, broadband and telecommunications infrastructure, blockchain technology can bestow more universe digital rights, including the ability to access modern internet and phone services without being surveilled.
In the current “builder’s market,” blockchain developers and founders need to pay closer attention to the developments unfolding across telecommunications, broadband and IoT, rather than speculative digital asset bubbles that, unfortunately, defined the space over the past few years. Whether it’s setting up routers to power decentralized wireless networks (following in the tradition of Satoshi Nakamoto sending himself test amounts of bitcoin), or writing interoperable code, the crypto community should apply the principles of decentralization to this next frontier, and work together to ensure the ubiquitous network as envisioned by Tesla can take hold on the same scale as the inventor’s AC gold standard.