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The thoughts and theories of a guy who basically should have gone to bed hours ago.

I know, I know - what's the point? But look at it this way - I stayed up late writing it, but you're reading it...

Let's call ourselves even & move on, OK?

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Department of Internet?

According to the International Telecommunication Union (via InternetWeek), in 2000, the United States ranked third in the world in number of high-speed internet subscribers per capita. In 2004, we were 16th. The 2005 numbers are about to come out, and it looks like we might fall out of the top 20.

Some of these countries have obvious advantages in this space (close proximity of people, making it easier to get broadband access to a higher percentage of the population), but we're behind countries like Canada too. InternetWeek thinks that what's missing is a government regulated broadband network.

Interesting. Here's a space where market forces aren't satisfying the public good (it's not profitable to wire everyone for broadband, so no one does it) AND where the providers (cable & phone companies) are starting to make noises about distributing their costs to their users (the content providers).

Smells like a public utility, doesn't it?

Government run broadband access to the internet would allow us to determine what percentage of the country was online by manipulating government spending, rather than counting on the private sector's profit motive. On the other hand, there's been a lot of talk lately about how the feds react to content that travels over their wires. If the feds get involved here, look for the same kind of decency/censorship debates that we've had in radio and television in recent years. Of course, the Internet raises a few new issues: First, content on the Internet doesn't necessarily come from the United States, so even if access is a public utility (in this country), it would be exceedingly difficult for the government to completely regulate the providers.

Second, the Internet provides more interactive options for policing content. If you think people are in a tizzy now over the government asking search engine companies for data, imagine if they controlled the servers themselves? They may not be able to stop the production of "offensive" material, but they could more easily control the distribution of it. Now, I'm not suggesting that the U.S. government would outwardly censor Internet content (see also: China) - that wouldn't pass muster with the public in this country. Distribution control in the U.S. more often takes the form of surcharges - charging a premium for access to adult sites (a la HBO or Cinemax on cable TV), for instance.

So the question is this: is more universal access worth giving the government a say over what gets seen and how much it costs? I say no, but then again, I live in a major metropolitan area where broadband access is readily available.

I wonder what Scalzi thinks out in Ohio...

posted by Brian at 10:03 AM


  • Scalzi in Ohio doesn't particularly want the government in the Internet business, actually (any more than it already is, of course -- note that the historical antecedent to the Internet was ARAPNET). Or at the very least, to the extent that that government is involved, it should be at a local rather than federal level. If San Francisco wants to offer free broadband across it city, for example, I'm fine with that. But the opportunities for governmental mischief seem to be fairly high.

    The broadband problem is one that can (and probably will) have a technical solution, in that advancing wireless technologies like WiMax (and other similar solutions) will probably solve the "last mile" problem that exists in a number of rural or far-flung areas here in the US. In terms of bandwidth, the issue as far as I understand it isn't capability (there's oodles of dark fiber that was laid down but is now unused) but business simple trying to find a way to choke profit out of what they already have. As far as I know there's no reason I, sitting in my house in rural Ohio, *couldn't* have 100mps connectivity, if Sprint (my local DSL provider) would bang open the spigot.

    If there are to be any government edicts regarding broadband access, they should be that a) municipalities should not be banned from setting up their own broadband access networks (which access companies are trying to push on a state level), and b) that where there is no free/low-cost municipally-owned network, access providers should work with municipalities to offer a free/low-cost broadband solution for the poorest members of the population.

    Also, of course, I'm all for competition. My problem here in rural Ohio is that until this last year my sole broadband option was satellite, which was expensive and had annoying lag. Now I have the option of satellite, cable and DSL; I use DSL which is best suited for my needs and (overall) less expensive. I would be delighted to have even more options.

    By Blogger John Scalzi, at 10:24 AM, February 23, 2006  

  • Now how's that for service? 21 minutes between post & response. Thanks for weighing in, John...

    I like your idea of leaning on the private sector to work with municipalities, but I see two practical problems.

    First, political pressure aside, there's still not enough money in it, and let's remember - the corporations' fiduciary duty is to its shareholders, not its customers. The fact that you could have a wider pipe and don't speaks directly to this issue. Sprint doesn't "bang open the spigot" for you because there aren't enough "you's" out there (although now that you're pimping their new phone, maybe that'll change. ;-) )

    The second thing is inconsistency. If you ask different providers to work with different municipalities to provide broadband to the poorest people, you're likely to get different service levels throughout the country. This isn't necessarily a bad thing (cheap DSL is better than cheap dial-up), but it doesn't achieve the holy grail of assumed broadband. Once content providers can assume their customers have broadband, they can stop supporting dial-up centric solutions, and pour that money into new broadband-cenric functionality, or even cheaper products.

    We have a long way to go, obviously. Like you, I'm all for competition. If we think of broadband access as a utility, though, and not a product, then we need a public entity to fill in the gaps that competitive markets would naturally ignore. Federal oversight seems appropriate here (as it does for water, electricity, and phone), but Internet access provides the extra added danger of what you rightly label "governmental mischief."

    It's a double-edged sword...

    By Blogger Brian, at 12:08 PM, February 23, 2006  

  • I think you're forgetting that there's a model here for regulation that's short of the public utility option. Under pre-Reagan FCC laws, any number of private broadcasters could compete with technical and content improvements, but since the public owned the airwaves the government could impose requirements on them for the "lease" of the public goods.

    It seems to me that ISPs can cover much the same territory. AFAIK, there's no legal precedent for saying that the Internet is a public good, but there are any number of other ways that a federal government could strongarm the providers. (Not *this* federal government, mind you.)

    But basically, I'm with John on this. This problem will most likely solve itself in 20 years when some fat-pipe long-range wireless comes online, with WiMax and UWB being the most obvious starting points. In the meantime, the current administration would be unable to do any public goods works without simultaneously attempting to shut down porn sites, pro-choice sites, and DailyKos, so I'd prefer to see them keep their mitts off.

    By Anonymous Jeff Porten, at 1:04 PM, February 23, 2006  

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