Light 'em up

Like dark fiber beneath the streets that merely needs to be "lit up", the ubiquity of mobile means that there are vast, untapped networks out there just waiting to be lit up

July 30, 2015
Jonathan Libov

Beneath the streets of New York there are miles and miles of fiber optic cable. The telco's have laid down over the years in order to deliver ultra-fast internet to business and residences. However, a lot of that fiber, lying idly beneath our office and apartment buildings, isn’t actually connected to our offices and apartments. Unused fiber optic cable like this is called “dark fiber”, and there are companies like Pilot which physically connect the dark fiber to a building’s routers. Pilot “lights up” that dark fiber.

The giant network of iOS and Android devices — at least one to a person — is like dark fiber in that so much of it still hasn’t been lit up. For as transformative as mobile has already been, and for as prolific as it already is, you can still find vast, untapped opportunities. Here are some recent startups taking advantage of this.

Figure 1 is lighting up the worldwide network of doctors who had not previously been sharing media and information with one another. This works because doctors were already walking around with phones in their pockets. Much as Instagram quickly grew to be much larger than Flickr because photo sharing no longer required connecting a dedicated camera over USB, Figure 1 enables doctors who see something to capture it in the moment. Looking at the larger picture, Figure 1 could be the app that effectively brings doctors online. That's a really big deal.

Transfix, in turn, could be the the app that brings truck drivers online. Transfix offers a suite of free SAAS tools that replace maps, time logs, invoices, and all sorts of other analog, paper documents. A driver on Transfix can now plot his route, find the cheapest gas stations, and close a transaction with a supplier from his phone. When Transfix lights up all those drivers, the company suddenly has all sorts of things that were never before possible: A nationwide, on-demand marketplace for freight, a network of trucks large enough to justify buying oil futures, and a means for drivers, parked for the night at a truck stop, to organize an impromptu poker night.

Fishbrain connects members of the world’s largest hobby: fishing. Having a phone in your pocket that is simultaneously a GPS and a mapping interface enables anglers to crowdsource information about conditions and fish populations, which then enables Fishbrain to forecast where you should be fishing that day. If there are grandfathers out there on the lake with their grandchildren, the elder generation is surely amazed that, because of the kid's phone, he knows where the fish are. (The fish!)

As Benedict Evans has stressed, what’s different about tech now is that because of mobile, it’s reaching everyone. This is one way to say that the market size for distributing software is bigger than ever. But still, a bigger market is not sufficient for Figure 1, Transfix or Fishbrain, nor any of the on-demand startups: Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Shyp, and on and on. These companies weren't possible when a portion of their potential network had a good smartphone with a good data connection but the rest accessed the Internet on their desktop. These companies only became possible once everyone was carrying a good smartphone.

Hence the more important point is that, with a smartphone in every pocket, entrepreneurs can now count on the fact that everyone is always online. Like the doctors, truck drivers, and anglers being lit up by Figure 1, Transfix, and Fishbrain, there are countless, overlapping networks of people out there that, like the dark fiber beneath our feet, just need to be lit up with a mobile app. And just like dark fiber, the capacity they can deliver is tremendous.

As a matter of practicality, this idea of “lighting up a dark network” is a useful retort when someone asks if we’re in a tech bubble. On the one hand, if that person is merely inquiring about short-term prices, the right answer is “Maybe? Probably? I don’t know.” But on the other hand, if you look out at all the networks, merely lying in wait, yet to be lit up, the only answer is, “That’s a silly question.”

Thanks to Andy Weissman for reviewing a draft of this post