Another excellent video from Susan Crawford, this one from Summer 2010.
Wally Bowen, the Founder and Executive Director for the Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, North Carolina, wrote the following piece after President Obama's State of the Union Address. He gave us permission to reprint it below.
Last night in the State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to help “win the future” by, among other things, rebuilding America's infrastructure.
On broadband Internet access, the president was unequivocal: wireless broadband is the way forward (item #1 below).
However, he did not mention the FCC's recent approval of “open Internet” protections that are widely believed to be unenforceable. Indeed, just a few days ago Verizon filed suit to invalidate these rules via a preemptive, knockout blow.
Congress is not likely to pass any meaningful net neutrality/open Internet rules. This means that the Internet is completely exposed to “corporate enclosure” by a handful of cable and telephone companies and their business partners (Apple, Google, FaceBook, et al).
Our only alternative for preserving an open Internet -- and the freedom to innovate and use applications of our own choosing -- is the creation of non-commercial, community-based broadband networks (item #2 below).
Fortunately, Asheville and WNC are ahead of the game with our nonprofit fiber networks (ERC Broadband, Balsam West, French Broad EMC, et al.) and nonprofit wireless networks like the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN).
The way forward will be difficult. While the commercial carriers have been somewhat tolerant of nonprofit “middle-mile” fiber networks, they view nonprofit “last-mile” providers of broadband service to homes and businesses as “unfair competition.”
Indeed, 15 states have already passed laws – pushed by cable and telco lobbyists – to prohibit “last-mile” municipal broadband networks. A similar law was attempted, but tabled, in the last two sessions of the N.C. General Assembly. This law will no doubt re-appear in the upcoming session.
Fortunately, MAIN is an independent nonprofit and card-carrying member of the private sector. While the big carriers cannot...Read more
The Economist has again editorialized about US telecom policy, in this case specifically about network neutrality.
This debate is loudest in America, uncoincidentally the developed market with the least competitive market in internet access. Democrats, who are in favour of net-neutrality rules, insist regulation is needed to prevent network operators discriminating in favour of their own services. A cable-TV firm that sells both broadband internet access and television services over its cables might, for example, try to block internet-based video that competes with its own television packages. Republicans, meanwhile, worry that net neutrality will be used to justify a takeover of the internet by government bureaucrats, stifling innovation. (That the internet’s origins lie in a government-funded project is quietly passed over.)
They take a fairly middling approach, regarding the network neutrality rules as decent, arguing that some measure of discrimination should be allowed and could be beneficial (one wonders if they truly thought deeply about this: before YouTube, connections would have been optimized against streaming traffic and YouTube may never have succeeded).
In any event, they answer their own question: the real problem in the U.S. is lack of competition among Internet service providers.
These details are important, but the noise about them only makes the omission more startling: the failure in America to tackle the underlying lack of competition in the provision of internet access. In other rich countries it would not matter if some operators blocked some sites: consumers could switch to a rival provider. That is because the big telecoms firms with wires into people’s homes have to offer access to their networks on a wholesale basis, ensuring vigorous competition between dozens of providers, with lower prices and faster connections than are available in America. Getting America’s phone and cable companies to open up their networks to others would be a lot harder for politicians than prattling on about neutrality; but it would do far more to open up the net.
Unfortunately, they do not consider another remedy: local ownership that is accountable to the public. This approach can offer both competition (via open access) as well as ensuring general network management puts community needs...Read more
The Federal Communications Commission released the results of a survey of libraries and schools, the 2010 E-Rate Program and Broadband Usage Survey - announcement here [pdf] and full report here [pdf].
As critical as we are of the FCC, I would like to note that the FCC is doing a better job of collecting data than it did in the past.
I want to highlight a few interesting pieces from the report. Of the respondents, only 21% of schools and 13% of libraries have connections riding on fiber-optics. Half of schools and libraries are stuck on T1 lines.
Schools and libraries reported 63% and 65%, respectively, connections that were under 10Mbps. Considering these connections are likely serving many concurrent connections, they should have faster connections.
The vast majority want to have faster connections:
The question is why they want faster connections. Only 20% say their current connection completely meets their need to conduct online testing and assessment applications - with another 44% saying it "mostly" meets those needs.
These gaps represent a tremendous opportunity for growth - communities should be building their own fiber-optic connections to connect these key institutions and ensure they will have affordable, fast, and reliable connections well into the future. By owning the network, these institutions will have greater control over future costs and their capacity to take advantage of even newer applications.
The FCC should favor locally owned networks to encourage self-reliance instead of never-ending subsidies to private carriers who have little incentive to lower prices and increase investment.
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...Read more
Frontier has been bitten by the same disadvantage many communities face when building their own networks -- little market power means having to overpay for everything. When Frontier bought millions of Verizon rural lines, it bought a few FiOS connections as well. But not enough to gain any bargaining power with channel owners. So Frontier had to raise the costs of its video services up for 46%. Lest anyone feel too sorry for Frontier, they are doing just fine. It is their customers who suffer. But it is a reminder that the issue of scale and market power are barriers to all competition, not just community networks. If we want to have real competition in this country, the Congress and the FCC need to stop ignoring the problems caused by massive players distorting the market. This unregulated market is an invitation for big players to join together and screw everyone else.
Susan Crawford has coined the expression "looming cable monopoly" to describe important changes in the Internet access arena. We have long discussed the ways in which FTTH represents a natural monopoly -- the first entity to build a FTTH network is likely to be the only one. What we haven't discussed how cable networks are similarly edging DSL-dependent telcos out of the market.
The short version is this: upgrading cable networks to offer fastest speeds is much less expensive than upgrading DSL networks. Something not often mentioned: aside from AT&T and Verizon (who effectively mint dollars with their mobile revenues), the telephone companies have no money to upgrade their DSL networks anyway.
When the FCC took a look at this situation, they concluded that what little competition we have for broadband in the US is about to decrease (something we have long argued is a result of relying solely on the private sector for essential infrastructure). From the National Broadband Plan [pdf] on page 42:
Prior to cable’s DOCSIS 3.0 upgrade, more than 80% of the population could choose from two reasonably similar products (DSL and cable). Once the current round of upgrades is complete, consumers interested in only today’s typical peak speeds can, in principle, have the same choices available as they do today. Around 15% of the population will be able to choose from two providers for very high peak speeds (providers with FTTP and DOCSIS 3.0 infrastructure). However, providers offering fiber-to-the-node and then DSL from the node to the premises (FTTN), while potentially much faster than traditional DSL, may not be able to match the peak speeds offered by FTTP and DOCSIS 3.0.
Thus, in areas that include 75% of the population, consumers will likely have only one service provider (cable companies with DOCSIS 3.0-enabled infrastructure) that can offer very high peak download speeds.
To be clear - those "very high peak download speeds" they...Read more
We're about to start a new year and thanks to the FCC, we'll see some expanded creativity from the private broadband carriers who want to raise the prices we pay. In fact, you might not be aware of the lengths to which they have already gone. Illustrated nicely by this graphic from the folks at New Networks. But now they have increased power to increase the prices they overcharge us in novel ways. I'm a sucker for Les Misérables, so when a friend reminded me of some of the lyrics, I couldn't help but post them up here as they seem appropriate. Some things never change. From Master of the House:
THENARDIER Enter M'sieur Lay down your load Unlace your boots And rest from the road (Taking his bag) This weighs a ton Travel's a curse But here we strive To lighten your purse Here the goose is cooked Here the fat is fried And nothing's overlooked Till I'm satisfied... Food beyond compare Food beyond belief Mix it in a mincer And pretend it's beef Kidney of a horse Liver of a cat Filling up the sausages With this and that ... Charge 'em for the lice Extra for the mice Two percent for looking in the mirror twice Here a little slice There a little cut Three percent for sleeping with the window shut When it comes to fixing prices There are a lot of tricks he knows How it all increases All those bits and pieces Jesus! It's amazing how it grows!
Les Mis Photo used under Creative Commons License, courtesy of daviddmuir.