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CES: Verizon CEO Foresees Smarter Networks

The top search suggestion generated by Google News for the keyword "Verizon" this morning was "Verizon iPhone," ahead even of the one-word company name.

In his keynote presentation on Thursday at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Verizon CEO and chairman Ivan Seidenberg failed to satisfy those hungry for word of the iPhone's escape from AT&T.

Instead, he pushed back against the notion that any one device or company matters more than others in the modern communications industry. "The answer won't come form any single company," he said, describing the opportunity ahead. Instead it will come from partnerships.

It was a point echoed by Verizon COO Lowell McAdam, who said, "No single company will make this happen by itself," in reference to the always-connected, ultra-fast broadband, content-rich, Internet of things that Seidenberg and McAdam painted as the future.

But at the center of this sprawling network of devices, a single company does stand out: Verizon. Though he spoke of a "circle of collaboration," Seidenberg also set Verizon apart: At the beginning of his presentation he noted how at many conferences, attendees are asked to turn off their mobile devices so as not to overload the wireless network. That won't happen on Verizon's watch. "When Verizon's up here, turn 'em on," he declared.

Seidenberg's vision for Verizon is, as an introductory video put it, to make network connectivity as simple as breathing, to make reception available where needed.

Today's consumers, he said, "see everything being connected...and they're impatient with the barriers between what they see and what they imagined."

Pointing to the world's two billion Internet users and five billion wireless users, Seidenberg can fairly say that there's a huge opportunity. Wireless data, he said, is more than doubling every year and smart phones are increasing at rate of 90% per year.

Usage of the word "smart" is increasing too. Seidenberg, McAdam, and guest CEOs Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner and Sanjay Jha of Motorola Mobility painted rosy pictures of smart homes, smart networks, smart phones, smart hubs, smart cities, smart societies, and smart grids, not to mention "high-IQ networks."

Don't be surprised if we see a few dumb missteps on the way to this happy future.

Indeed, it may be worth moving ahead cautiously. Smart networks may not always be desirable. Consider Bewkes's dismissal of the complexities of making content available across multiple services and devices. Shifting content across devices shouldn't be a problem, he said, if everyone has paid for it.

The implication here is that the smart network will know who has paid and who hasn't, who has been naughty and who has been nice. This is very different from the dumb network that is the Internet, which thrived because of its ignorance. The Internet was designed to do one thing well: to get data from one endpoint to another, without being too smart about it.

With Seidenberg noting that video now accounts for more than half of Internet traffic and predicting that it could reach 90% in the years ahead, it's clear that content owners like Time Warner aren't eager to see their valuable video content pilfered by freeloaders. That may be smart business but it may not be so wise for the health of the Net.