Policy and regulation

The end of the Internet?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/14/2006 - 11:27

I've borrowed the title of Jeff Chester's article in The Nation. Chester raises alarm bells about the plans of the incumbent broadband providers to create walled gardens that give them near monopoly control over what their subscribers can do and access via their broadband connections.

With the encouragement of network equipment giant Cisco, these companies are beginning to plan for massive snooping into every packet of data that flows in and out of our computers. Using Google as an example, these broadband providers want to build massive dossiers about what you watch, who you call, and what Web sites you visit, so that they can sell advertising space to companies eager to sell you something. The broadband providers are ready to jump to IP-based TV, but not the free-ranging, free for all of the Internet. Instead, you will be able to access only that programming your broadband provider will let cross their network, and it will be packaged much the way Google packages everything--with space for ads.

And if a business wants to use its broadband connection to videoconference with a distant client? Well, that may not work at all, or it will work only by paying special fees. Without the counterbalance of public infrastructure, open to any broadband service provider, this will come to pass in many communities.

Vermont lowers barriers to broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/14/2006 - 10:32

Vermont legislators are debating legislation that would provide low interest loans to wireless providers that offer broadband in underserved areas of the state. And even better, the state lawmakers may waive onerous state-required impact reviews and red tape for new wireless towers if local communities have an approved review process in place.

This is exactly what government should be doing--making it easier and less expensive for the private sector to build out broadband infrastructure. The wireless tower changes recognize that broadband wireless towers are usually much lower and less obtrusive than cell towers, and don't require the same level of study and oversight.

Good for Vermont. Let's hope this bill breezes through the legislature and gets passed quickly.

Network neutrality and the future of communities

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/13/2006 - 09:24

If you are not familiar with the phrase "network neutrality," it is time to start learning more about it, as the issue is moving front and center in the debate about the future of the Internet.

The current Internet is "network neutral," meaning that there is a gentleman's agreement among all network managers that they will allow anyone else's data to cross their network. If you send an email to someone in California, it might traverse several privately owned networks along the way. Network neutrality is what makes the Internet work.

But as I've been writing for some time, the Internet was never designed for video, and the crushing data load of video (hundreds or thousands of times more data than emails and Web pages) is forcing network managers to start considering alternatives to network neutrality.

It is the low end broadband providers (telcos and cable companies) that are suffering. As their customers now routinely download or stream audio and video from sources outside their own network, they have to carry all that traffic, raising their costs and affecting network performance (everything gets slower).

This BBC commentary is a good introduction to some of the issues (I don't agree with everything the author recommends), and here is a critical and important quote from the article:

The phone and cable companies want to be free to charge for new services and make more money, and they argue that it's not up to the government what they do with their networks.

I have to side with the broadband providers in this case. I don't agree with the author that the solution is to re-regulate telecom and turn these companies into de facto arms of the government. We've already tried that, and as the technology changed, it was less and less efficient.

The author talks about the undesirability of having two roads in every town--a well maintained private road (owned by the telcos and cable companies) and a "dirt road" for public use. But in trying to convince us of the correctness of his position, he fails to mention an alternative--that communities build and maintain roads that can be used by everyone, including the cable and telephone companies.

This model already works really well--with vehicular roads, on which an amazing variety of public and private vehicles share that road and its costs and everyone benefits from a single, publicly maintained community road system.

The author's alternative is to have the Federal government deciding for local communities what kind of broadband they need. That's not likely to work well, any more than it is to let the cable or telephone company decide what kind of broadband we need (where we are right now).

Think I'm wrong about relying of the Feds? Ten years after the 1996 Telecom Deregulation Act, the Federal government is still stubbornly insisting that "broadband" is 200 kilobits per second. That's about four times faster than dial up, about two to four times slower than what most of us have via cable and DSL, and about 500 times slower than what the rest of the world thinks is an acceptable broadband speed (100 megabits per second).

So communities have three choices:

Which fork in the road is the right one for the economic future of your community?

Do the phone companies owe us $200 billion?

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 02/02/2006 - 09:32

A new book alleges that the phone companies owe every household in America $2000, or about $200 billion in total. Just released (disclaimer: I have not had a chance to read it yet), the book is already creating a lot of discussion online.

The dollar figures allegedly come from calculations the author has performed by looking at the increases in phone and broadband costs over the past decade and comparing them to what the phone companies promised to do in the mid-nineties.

As someone who worked for AT&T in the early eighties, both before and after the break up, I tend to be skeptical of phone company conspiracy theories. I saw so much bad management I have a hard time visualizing the kind of diabolical master plans some people want to see--a lot of it is just plain myopia and lack of vision.

But there is no denying some of the author's key allegations, because they have been rigorously documented by many sources--we rank 16th in the world for broadband deployment, and have some of the slowest, most expensive broadband in the world, by a wide margin.

U.S. broadband: "Slowest, most expensive in the world"

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/31/2006 - 10:35

With a hat tip to Chris Miller, this article underscores the seriousness of the broadband crisis in the United States. We're paying more than anybody else in the developed world for "broadband," while getting a lot less, performance-wise (50 to 100 times slower in most cases).

Other countries with better broadband using it to supercharge economic development; Ireland was a basket case twenty years ago, and in part, due to their investments in broadband, it is the hottest country in Europe for jobs and business, as just one example. In Asia, fast, affordable broadband is driving opportunity everywhere. It's not accident that India is stealing jobs from the U.S.; the only reason they can do that is broadband--lots of it, at affordable prices.

Meanwhile, in this country, too many economic developers are missing the obvious. If companies are willing to outsource to India, with all the attendant costs and disadvantages of working at such a distance, export/import issues, and language issues, why not outsource within the United States, where much of the baggage associated with offshoring disappears.

But in too many areas of the country, we are not investing in broadband and our leaders still do not see the connection between broadband and economic development. This article is particularly important because it reviews the history of electric power deployment. Seventy years ago, local, state, and Federal government began to invest in municipal electric services because the private sector was leaving great swaths of the country underserved. A great wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued, with the private electric industry claiming it was the end of Western Civilization, or something close to it.

Universal access to affordable electric service was an economic development issue then, and today, universal access to affordable, fast broadband is an economic development issue. The good news is that public broadband investments can be made in a way that not only do NOT compete with the private sector, those investments can open new markets and help create new private sector jobs.

We can all win if this done right, and step one is to re-read the history of technology deployment in U.S. communities. We've been here before.

The government is not Big Brother...

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 01/13/2006 - 09:44

In yet another example that government is not usually the biggest threat to our privacy, a political blogger just bought the phone records of former presidential candidate Wesley Clark. For $90, the blogger got them from a company called Celltolls.com that has a business selling your phone records to anyone who wants them.

So while we are having a national dialogue about trying to track down a few terrorists using wiretaps and the purely theoretical assault on the privacy of U.S. citizens, meanwhile any snoop in your neighborhood can find out who you are talking to. Or the company you work for, an angry ex-spouse, or a co-worker with a grudge.

We certainly need to make sure the government follows rules that protect the privacy of U.S. citizens, but at least the government has some checks and balances in place and officials who violate the rules can get in serious trouble.

But meanwhile, the phone companies are selling our call information to anyone who wants it. And there are no checks and balances at all on this.

Both issues are important, and both require our attention and vigilance. But right now, I think the more serious threat is coming from private sector companies that take my money as a customer and then turn around and sell my privacy to anyone with a credit card.

Bloggers don't fall under campaign rules

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/18/2005 - 10:29

SlashDot has a long discussion thread about an opinion issued by the Federal Election Commission that "bloggers are journalists." The ruling exempts bloggers from having to file lenghty reports and paperwork to meet the McCain-Feingold campaign laws. As Slashdot points out, the ruling indicates that bias in reporting does not automatically mean a blogger is NOT a journalist.

If this seems like hairsplitting or stating the obvious, it is nonetheless important because those that argued bloggers should be regulated based their argument in part on the notion that they were biased towards one position or another. What the FEC is saying is that the mere fact of having an opinion that leans politically left or politically right does not mean you immediately fall under campaign finance laws.

The FEC seems to be trying to do the right thing. What is disturbing is that the issue came up at all. Trying to regulate the right of individuals to express an opinion on the Internet is just wrong, and dreadfully so.

The Internet Monroe Doctrice

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 11/05/2005 - 07:45

Some bloggers are calling this simple four part statement a "Monroe Doctrine" for the Internet. The United States has made it clear that it is not going to give control of the Internet to the U.N. Good. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

WiFi is not a "right"

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/02/2005 - 07:18

The mayor of San Francisco has proclaimed that WiFi is a "right." Here are his exact words, from a recent Yahoo! article.

This is a civil rights issue as much as anything else...It is to me a fundamental right to have access universally to information.

WiFi is a lot of things, but I'm pretty sure that it is not a civil right, anymore than libraries or roads are a civil right. Libraries provide information, but I don't think we have a "right" to them. Television and radio provide information, but I don't recall a debate in the 1920s about "radio rights" or in the 1950s about "TV rights."

People like Rosa Parks, who really did have something to say about civil rights, are diminished by this kind of hyperbole.

Good-bye to long distance

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/01/2005 - 10:22

The FCC has approved the SBC-AT&T merger and the Verizon-MCI merger. What these deals really mean is that long distance as a service is dead, dead, dead, as I like to say.

The baseline for telephony service is now nationwide flat rate calling, or some variant of that that includes a lot of long distance minutes in the base rate and something around or below five cents a minute if you go over.

AT&T and MCI have dwindled in recent years to nearly nothing because they could not look past the long distance cash cow. Both companies had millions of customers paying around twenty or twenty-five dollars a month for long distance service, and it was easy money.

But the whole long distance business was built decades ago on private, long distance networks that connected to local switches. It was a big, expensive business to build all those trunk lines, so even after Ma Bell was deconstructed in 1984, there were really only three major players--AT&T, MCI, and Sprint. Most other long distance companies just bought wholesale and resold capacity.

Like everything else, the Internet has been the big spoiler. What has happened over the past several years is that most long distance traffic has been switched over to packet-based Internet trunks, which is cheaper and easier to do, and the old dedicated long distance networks became irrelevant.

The death of long distance has been inevitable, but it remains to be seen if it these mergers do any good. We have fewer and fewer companies owning a larger and larger share of telecom services. I remain steadfast in believing, as many others do, that the only way out of this marketplace monopoly (not a good thing) is distributed ownership of networks. Communities and governments have to get involved in creating open service provider networks to create a balance to the monopolies we have in most communities.

If we don't do this, the future of many communities will be increasingly grim, as high telecom costs will make these places noncompetitive from an economic development perspective.

Funding fiber: A simple solution

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/31/2005 - 10:02

There is much handwringing by local and state governments and the Feds about the "lack of money" to spend on broadband infrastructure. But it is pretty hard to take all that seriously. When politicians say, "There is no money for that," what they are really saying is that there are other things they would rather spend it on, and often for no good reason.

This report on the ever expanding oil well style gusher of gas taxes is a perfect example.

Governments are collecting more than $58 billion a year in gas taxes, and spending it on all kinds of dubious "transportation" projects, many of which are pork, pure and simple.

And communities are in on it. So it is really us that are making bad choices. A community, cannot, on the one hand, complain about disappearing jobs and lack of economic growth, and then on the other hand, encourage their elected reps to throw gas tax dollars at old economy projects or, worse, civic projects that have only a slight relationship to jobs and Knowledge Economy economic development.

Let's take 10% of our gas taxes and build fiber roads with the money. What we need is the equivalent, at the Federal level, of the Interstate highway system, where the Feds, in cooperation with the States, built interstate highways. We need that again. The natural role of the Federal government is interstate fiber highways, with exit ramps in major towns and cities. States and local governments can use their own 10% portion of gas taxes to build middle mile connections to local communities.

With that kind of middle mile and backbone infrastructure being built, the private sector will, in most places, be happy to provide local (first mile) connectivity.

$5 billion dollars, at an average of $10,000/mile for fiber construction (I'm taking advantage of volume to drive the average cost down), we could build 500,000 miles of backbone and middle mile fiber.

That's not just a start, it is what we need to do, and right now. And we would not even notice that little 10% shift in transportation spending...it's pocket change for state and Federal government.

VoIP blocking will kill economic development

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/25/2005 - 08:35

What I and others have been predicting for years is starting to come to pass. As the number of broadband providers has narrowed to a duopoly of the cable and phone company in most regions, these firms are starting to muscle out third party service providers. VoIP startups are the first target because both the phone and cable company want VoIP customers of their own, and the simplest way to do that is to simply block all VoIP data packets except their own. Evidence of this is clearly visible as hardware manufacturers begin to sell VoIP blocking appliances.

This is the strongest argument of all for community broadband infrastructure, which is offered as a level playing field for all service providers. Community leaders that simply hand over the economic development keys to a monopoloy broadband provider by doing nothing are consigning their communities to a slow death. Businesses will avoid regions where there is monopoly control of services (that is, all telecom costs will be higher there). New businesses will have a harder time starting, and entrepreneurs will pick up their families and move elsewhere.

The opening shots are being fired. The goal is to kill competition and create monopoloy markets where a private company decides what services your community and businesses get, and at what price. How will your region respond?

Privacy and the double meat pizza

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/14/2005 - 15:46

The notion of a national ID number is being considered for a variety of reasons: the Social Security number was never intended as a national ID number, but is used that way, the illegal immigration crisis is due in part to the difficulty of identifying valid U.S. citizens, and law enforcement, insurance agencies, and health care providers all like the idea of having a better way to keep tabs on people.

Meanwhile, we have Google and the credit card companies tracking and aggregating information on everything we do.

For an idea of how this might all work in the future, check out this funny but frightening demonstration.

Revenge of the ISPs, or the FCC was right

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 10/06/2005 - 08:47

I have taken much criticism over the past several years by arguing that forcing the telephone and cable companies to open their networks to competitors (called "open access") was the wrong thing to do. And I got more scorn when I said the FCC did the right thing earlier this year by formally putting an end to line sharing for DSL.

I will not rehash the entire discussion, but my feeling then and now is that a level playing field would create new opportunities. And the recent announcement that Earthlink will build a WiFi network for the City of Philadelphia FOR FREE is vindication.

Earthlink has had a modest DSL access service that relied on its ability to lease DSL lines from local phone companies at below market rates. Once the FCC stopped requiring phone companies to lease lines to firms like Earthlink, that business dried up rather quickly.

So Earthlink has proposed and achieved a public/private partnership with the City of Philadelphia to install and manage a citywide WiFi mesh network. Their goal, of course, is to get into a huge market for broadband and compete against the cable and phone companies.

This never would have happened if the FCC had not come out against forced open access.

Philadelphia will provide Earthlink with access to public facilities to install antennas, and will also likely help with installing the fiber in streets that will be needed to light up the network (even in a mesh network, you still have to get the wireless signals back onto the wired Internet).

I was initially opposed to the Philadelphia project because I thought it was risky for a local government to take on a massive effort like this in advance of understanding the market. I still think having the government take on the services side is still risky in some cases. But Earthlink brought a proposal to the city that shifts virtually all of the risk to a private company. It's beautiful. And it happened because the local government got involved, instead of standing on the sidelines with its hands in its pockets.

Bottom line: Local government has a valuable role to play by creating a vision for the community and encouraging private sector investment to help make it happen. Philadephia leaders have done a great service for the community, and businesses and residents will have more choice for broadband access and services, and both the city and its businesses will save millions on telecom services.

FTC Commissioner says muni broadband a good thing

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 10/02/2005 - 20:11

An FTC (Federal Trade Commission) commissioner spoke out against cable and telecom efforts to stifle community investment in broadband. Jon Leibowitz made a sensible analogy when he said that the current industry approach was like "Barnes and Noble and Borders saying libraries are killing their business and asking law makers to stop localities from building more libraries."

Leibowitz went on to say, "If cities do have these so-called advantages [such as freedom from taxation and various local regulations], and they want to pass them on to citizens, why shouldn't they be allowed to do so? That's exactly what a city does when it operates public schools, hires a police force, or builds libraries."

If an FTC commissioner can see and describe the situation so clearly, why can't our elected leaders and the FCC also see it? You may want to cut out the original article and mail to all your local leaders who can't make up their minds about broadband. Maybe it help them to see the light.

Massachusetts says "No" to Microsoft

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/07/2005 - 15:28

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is considering a move away from Microsoft Office and toward Open Source products like Open Office.

Microsoft's proprietary XML formats that are being used in current and future versions of Office to store Word and Excel documents, among others, are licensed to users. What this means, basically, is that you have the right to open and use your own Word documents only as long as Microsoft allows you to.

The state government of Massachusetts is worried, and rightly so, that public documents may become inaccessible either legally (if in the future the state does not continue to renew MS software licenses) or may become incompatible and therefore unreadable because MS has changed document formats.

Duopoly dangers

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/07/2005 - 08:41

RUPRI (the Rural Policy Research Institute) has an editorial that hits the nail on the head with respect to the challenges emerging from the cable/telephone duopoly that is tying up broadband markets in the United States.

We need clear policies at the local, state, and national level that preserve the right of communities, organizations, and individuals to use broadband for public and private purposes, without third party control.

We also need to preserve the right of communities to build and operate their own broadband networks, or to enter into public/private partnerships to do so, without having to seek the permission of the duopoly providers.

Communications utility FAQ

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/01/2005 - 08:37

Opportunity Iowa has an excellent Communications Utility FAQ that is worth a read. Although some of the information is specific to what is going on in Iowa, it provides a nice, short, clear summary of some key issues and what they mean for communities.

Is Iowa the telecom battleground?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/22/2005 - 10:28

Iowa may be the new battleground for broadband. Successful projects like the Cedar Falls fiber system and the statewide Opportunity Iowa project has shifted the battle from Louisiana, where the phone and cable companies lost a battle against the city of Lafayette.

The most interesting thing in the article is the arrogant attitude of the president of Quest:

Max Phillips, Iowa president of Qwest Communications International Inc., said the interests pushing the community fiber programs are misguided because people should focus on the speed and quality of service, not the medium that carries it.

Say good-bye to cable franchise fees

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/22/2005 - 10:15

Communities that rely on cable franchise fees to finance local government initiatives like a public access TV channel may have to find other ways to pay for those services.

As the FCC continues to level the playing field for telecom services, cable franchise fee revenues will likely disappear.

Communities will have to reposition this as a right of way fee, instead of a tax on the cable franchise but not on other right of way users. It can't just be regarded as easy money from a single company.

They also have to do a better job of tying the fees to the actual cost of managing right of way. Communities have to catalogue and track what is in public right of ways, and then begin to track how much public works and planning money is spent on managing private uses of public right of way--otherwise there is no way to justify a right of way fee. The old way of just pulling a number out of the air ("We'd like $50K to support our public access station") is not going to work anymore.

It's more a land use issue than a technology issue. And they aren't making more right of way, so it is perfectly appropriate for communities to have an active right of way management program--that's one key role of government--management of scarce resources on behalf of the entire community.

What happens to public access TV? One option is to go all digital and deliver the content via IP TV, rather than the old-fashioned cable system. It could end up costing less, and the public would benefit since the public access "channel" would no longer have any restrictions on the amount of content available. Communities would just put all the programming on a server, and it would be available all the time.

For communities that already have some form of broadband, this is quite doable today. For communities that do not have affordable broadband, it is one more reason to start doing something about the problem.

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