Paul Venezia is one of the few who noted a recent Lessig presentation that discusses broadband policy. Larry Lessig's presentation offers an excellent short history of broadband and telecom history - from the beginning of AT&T to the National Broadband Plan. The video runs an hour, but should be essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand why the U.S. continues to fall behind international peers in broadband. Lessig's answer is that we have lost our independence. Large corporate interests dominate the federal government as well as the state legislatures, resulting in a government that too often bends to their will. Lessig's presentation covers the essential role of government in forcing AT&T to open the phone network (paving the way for fax machines, Sports Illustrated football phones, and eventually dial-up modems). Key takeaway: the owner of a network makes the rules and determines who is allowed to use it and under what circumstances. Among other issues, he offers the most accessible explanation of what happened with the FCC/Comcast court ruling that has (temporarily - we hope) rendered the FCC unable to stop carriers from telling users what sites they can visit or adjusting the speeds to some sites based on the carriers' business model. He notes his disappointment with the National Broadband Plan - where the Obama "reality-based" Administration chose to ignore reality and take the easy road of not challenging powerful incumbent telecom interests. Toward the end, he raises the chilling prospect of the federal government instituting a form of the PATRIOT ACT on the Internet in the future. Watching this reminded me that we believe government has an essential role in building and owning infrastructure but we strongly support Constitutional checks against the government getting too involved in policing content. This is an excellent presentation - particularly for those who are not as familiar with the history of the AT&T, the FCC, Carterphone, and the competition we briefly had among service providers in the days of dial-up.
The Chair of the Federal Communications Commission has taken a stand for network neutrality - the founding principle of openness of the Internet. In short, network neutrality means the entity providing you access to the Internet cannot interfere with the sites you choose to visit - it cannot speed them up or slow them down in order to increase their profits. See video at the bottom of this post for a longer explanation.
FCC Chair Julius Genachowski recently spoke at the Brookings Institution [pdf] on the importance of an open Internet. He started by noting many of the ways we depend on services delivered over the Internet:
Even now, the Internet is beginning to transform health care, education, and energy usage for the better. Health-related applications, distributed over a widely connected Internet, can help bring down health care costs and improve medical service. Four out of five Americans who are online have accessed medical information over the Internet, and most say this information affected their decision-making. Nearly four million college students took at least one online course in 2007, and the Internet can potentially connect kids anywhere to the best information and teachers everywhere. And the Internet is helping enable smart grid technologies, which promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by hundreds of millions of metric tons.
However, because most Americans get access to the Internet from large, absentee-owned profit-maximizing companies who are often de facto monopolies, we have to beware the gulf between community interests and the narrow interests of these companies.
A second reason [for network neutrality rules] involves the economic incentives of broadband providers. The great majority of companies that operate our nation’s broadband pipes rely upon revenue from selling phone service, cable TV subscriptions, or both. These services increasingly compete with voice and video products provided over the Internet. The net result is that broadband providers’ rational bottom-line interests may diverge from the broad interests of consumers in competition and choice.
For this reason and others, the Chair suggested adding two new "freedoms" to the four Internet freedoms [pdf]...Read more
In a recent post the NY Times Bits Blog, Saul Hansell reports "Verizon Boss Hangs Up on Landline Phone Business" - something we have long known. Nonetheless, this makes it even more official: private companies have no interest in bringing true broadband to everyone in the United States.
Verizon is happy to invest in next-generation networks in wealthy suburbs and large metro regions but people in rural areas - who have long dealt with decaying telephone infrastructure - will be lucky to get slow DSL speeds that leave them unable to participate in the digital age. These people will be spun off to other companies so Verizon can focus on the most profitable areas.
For instance, Verizon found it profitable to spin off its customers in Hawaii to another company that quickly ran into trouble before unloading most of its New England customer on FairPoint, moves that enhanced Verizon's bottom line while harming many communities (see the bottom of this post and other posts about FairPoint).
Isen has been writing about it recently - picking up on FairPoint immediately breaking its promises to expand broadband access in the newly acquired territories. No surprise there.
Isen also delved deeper into Verizon's actions, with "Verizon throws 18 states under the progress train." He is right to push this as a national story - the national media focused intently on the absence of major carriers in the broadband stimulus package but they seem utterly uninterested in major carriers running away from broadband investments in rural areas.
Though Frontier likes to position itself as a company focused on bringing broadband to rural areas, it offers slow DSL broadband and poor customer service to people who have no other choices - more of a parasite than angel. As long as we view broadband as a vehicle for moving profits from communities to absentee-owned corporations rather than the infrastructure it truly is, we will farther and farther behind our international peers in the modern...Read more
Geoff Daily recently put up "Hey FCC: Stop Ignoring Municipal Broadband!" It is a sentiment I wholeheartedly echo and amplify. If the FCC is going to chart a course for where America is heading, it should start with some communities who are already there - Burlington, VT and Lafayette, LA. These communities have built (Burlington) or are building (Lafayette) that networks that everyone will need if America will retain is leadership position in the 21st century.
There are communities across the country that have found success building and operating their own broadband networks. Despite the caricature that municipal broadband invariably leads to boondoggles, that's just simply not the reality.
That's part of the reason why I think the FCC needed to include municipal representation on these panels. There's a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that's built up around municipal broadband that the FCC needs to be addressing on a factual basis. By not including municipal broadband on these panels I couldn't help but wonder if either the FCC was buying into these falsehoods or if they just didn't think municipal broadband was a significant enough player to include.
The current FCC approach is akin to starting the Interstate Highway system with a series of workshops featuring horse breeders.
In the meantime, the Economist has recognized the need for US regulators to get with the times. Fiber is the future - if it weren't for profit-maximizing companies and their lobbyists, talk of DSL would be followed by laughs.
With broadband networks, the role of the state has less to do with limiting handouts than increasing choice. Fibre-optic networks can be run like any other public infrastructure: government, municipalities or utilities lay the cables and let private firms compete to offer services, just as public roadways are used by private logistics firms. In Stockholm, a pioneer of this system, it takes 30 minutes to change your broadband provider. Australia’s new $30 billion all-fibre network will use a similar model.
Larry Press takes a rather quantitative approach to demonstrating that the deregulatory telecommunications policies of the past few decades have failed to produce the desired outcomes. We are currently at a key turning point in history: the policies we enact today will have repercussions throughout the entire decade. Fiber is replacing copper, the question is who will own it because owners make rules.
During the last 25 years, telecommunication has moved away from government–owned or regulated monopolies toward privatization with competition and oversight by independent regulatory agencies — PCR policies. We present data indicating that PCR has had little impact on the Internet during the last ten years in developed or developing nations, and discuss the reasons for this. We then describe several ways government can go beyond PCR, while balancing needs for next generation technology, decentralized infrastructure ownership, and immediate economic stimulus. We conclude that there is a need for alternatives to the expedient action of subsidizing the current Internet service providers with their demonstrated anti–competitive bent. The decisions we make today will shape telecommunication infrastructure and the industry for decades.
For three quarters of a century, the Communications Act has defined a successful communications policy as fostering ubiquitous, affordable service available on a nondiscriminatory basis in competitive markets. The penetration of phone service of over 90% for a quarter of a century in this country, as compared to penetration rates in most of the rest of the world, was widely touted as an example of our success as a nation and as critical to maintaining a unified society in which all had access to a technology critical for health, safety, and economic advancement.