The Last Mile – or “Getting Close is Easy, but Actually Getting There is Harder”

A key concept in the US Department of Defense transformation is Power to the Edge, as described in the book of the same name (3.9 MB .pdf). (For more thoughts on the book and concept, check out Ray Ozzie’s review.)

For this type of organization to perform in the desired manner, it requires timely access to a large amount of data, information, and “knowledge” about itself, neighboring good guys, and the bad guys. Unfortunately, the “edge” is a notoriously difficult place provide a large amount of data/info/knowledge in a timely (i.e. real-time) manner. Those with experience in the telecommunications industry (including telephone, internet service providers, cable companies) will recognize this as the last mile problem. It is relatively easy to get telephone/cable service close to subscribers. The challenge is being getting custom service from “close” to “there.”

The military’s challenges are quite significant in this area, not the least because they must rely almost exclusively on radio/wireless communications (it’s kind of hard to run a fiber network between vehicles driving cross-country at speed) in an environment where someone is actively trying to intercept and or deny your communications. Though commercial telecommunications providers don’t have the same set of constraints, they do have constraints. These primarily relate to the bottom line. Sure it is possible to extend fiber and custom services to each home, but how much would it cost, how much would the subscriber be willing to pay, how many subscribers would be willing to pay, etc etc etc.

Strangely enough, what got me thinking about all this today has nothing to do with telecommunications or military transformation. All this came to mind as I sat in the outer reaches of the Charlotte airport, waiting to see if I was going to get a seat to Augusta. I got to thinking about the hub-spoke architecture that the main airlines use in route design today, and what advantages it may provide over an extensive mesh network of more direct connection.

Just like any problem, this one can (and should) be viewed from several different perspectives. The airlines obviously have a reason for doing this way that affects the bottom line. Does it work? What kind of problems does it create? What is the perception from the customer’s point of view?

Time to do some research….