An underlying theme of many of these columns is that the definition of telecom "service providers" is undergoing a fundamental change. That's actually a consequence of a broader and deeper shift: namely, the definition of "communication" itself is changing fundamentally.Think of the shift that occurred as a result of the invention of the telegraph 150 years ago. The ability to send messages instantaneously across long distances had a significant effect. For example, instead of waiting weeks or months to learn the outcome of a battle, generals and politicians learned the results as soon as the battle had occurred, and responded accordingly. Similar shifts included the telephone and the advent of broadcast media.The same type of society-changing shift is happening today, because of IP-based communications. Particularly interesting technologies include instant messaging, IP telephony, presence and convergence.What are the characteristics of this shift? And what are the legal, business and societal implications? If the past is any clue, societies and behavior will change dramatically- as will societal expectations for the providers of these technologies.Key characteristics of these emerging communications technologies are that they can be instantaneous, reach billions of people, and yet be highly detailed and interactive. This means that strategic decision-making will need to factor in the ability to gather massive amounts of data and the need to respond to it immediately. Military professionals tell me that during the war in Iraq earlier this year, decisions were made based on instant-message reports from the front lines. In the not-too-distant future, via IM-like technologies coupled with video, generals will have instantaneous access to the experiences of individual privates on the front lines - which will necessarily affect how wars are fought and won.This innovation might seem science-fictional, but consider the business ramifications. Most executive decisions are made today in an information vacuum - not because executives are lazy or clueless, but because it has been impossible to gather detailed information in real time.Now imagine if a manufacturing executive had access to the minute-by-minute experiences of the crew on the factory floor - and was able to accurately model the effect of a proposed operational change.Another example is the effect on legislation. Several of my recent columns have\u00a0focused on the recording industry's efforts to involve telecom providers\u00a0in the enforcement of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In a nutshell, the question that remains is whether ISPs are more like telecom providers (not responsible for the content transmitted across their networks, even if it represents criminal activity) or broadcast networks (responsible for the content transmitted on their networks and for its effect on society). How those rules are interpreted will have a profound effect this century on business and personal behavior.It's a whole new ball game, folks - and the exciting part is just starting.