Frankston Demystifies Networking

Publication Date: 
November 29, 2010
Author(s): 
Bob Frankston

Bob Frankston has long been critical of both telecommunications companies and the regulators who are supposed to oversee them (but instead are often captured).

Bob has published a lengthy explanation of what is wrong with the US approach to expanding access to the Internet and the beginnings of an alternate approach. This paragraph from his conclusion is where I'll start:

We have a right to communicate. If we fund infrastructure instead of charging for services we can realize that right.

A number of thoughtful people have made the same comments and I believe we will ultimately build access to the Internet as infrastructure (rather than as discrete services arising from the history of telecommunications), but I'm not sure how we will get there.

Perhaps it helps for some to remember just how far we have some. Most of the people pushing for the government to stop regulating the gatekeepers to the Internet seem not to understand why government regulates telecommunications providers. Simply put, when telecommunications was largely unregulated, they screwed their subscribers.

The FCC defines a “completed call” as one that merely rings. It’s a perfect example of naïve indifference to the larger question of why we are using the phone. To a user (a word that makes us forget we are talking about people) a call is complete when you reach a person or, at least, leave message. Yet the phone companies didn’t allow answering machines until the Supreme Court overruled them in the 1968 Carterfone decision.

This story is repeated again and again because it is at the very heart of the concept of telephony. In 1956 they lost the Hush-A-Phone decision. They tried to prohibit people from putting a box around their phone! That was the extent to which the providers went to preserve control and dictate how you were supposed to use their network.

As Frankston rightly points out (here and elsewhere), the best one can say about regulation is that it has been imperfect. This is one reason we encourage public ownership rather than regulation from an authority closer to those regulated than the people. But merely abandoning regulation is a greater danger than any problems created by over-regulating - (it took no time for MetroPCS to charge more for access to Skype on its mobile network after the FCC weakened network neutrality rules).

But Frankston focuses on what should be rather than what has been:

I chose the word “infrastructure” rather than “utility” to avoid the implication that we are paying for services rather than using what is available. We still pay people to keep the roads running and bits flowing but we’re not paying for “consuming” the Internet.

The other important aspect of connectivity infrastructure is that it can be a common infrastructure for all kinds of services. If we don’t need providers we don’t need separate infrastructure for each purpose such as police radios, traffic light controls, educational networks or even turning on the street lights.

This is exactly right. However, I still do not know how local governments can start building using this infrastructure approach. I've been told that communities should not replicate the triple-play model, but it remains unclear how a community can run a network in the black without some form on the triple-play network. If a majority of citizens accepted that broadband networks should be financed in the same way as roads (supported by both user fees and other revenues), then it would certainly be possible. But most communities still have the expectation that these networks will entirely pay for themselves, so it remains unclear how they could build a network in this manner.

Frankston, and others, may say that the best approach is more ad hoc rather than by a local government or other entity that would take responsibility for building it. The problem we have with this approach, as with individual user-owned fiber (homes with tails), is that it seems a recipe for increasing the divide between the haves and have nots. To use a metaphor, it would be gold-paved streets in one part of town and dirt roads in another.

Nevertheless, any community building a network should be aware of this approach and consider how they can incorporate its philosophy into their investment.

Photo used under Creative Commons License, courtesy of FreeFoto.com