Sunday, January 15, 2006

Ongoing broadband myths

People continue to make all sorts of bizzare and misleading statements and claims about broadband internet access. Today I was reading an article in the NY Times by Randall Stross entitled "Hey, Baby Bells: Information Still Wants to Be Free".

First of all, the article's title is misleading. The writer's rant is not about information per se, but internet access to information. It's also misleading since it's not about traditional "information" (e.g., text, news stories, papers, articles, the Wikipedia, graphics, photos, etc.), but about non-text media such as audio and video, particularly media that requries significant bandwidth, both for the content itself and the large numbers of users who may access it. And finally, information has no life of its own and hence can't be said to "want" anything. This continued mindless ranting about "information wants to be free" is simply mindless nonsensical hype. If there are underlying facts at issue, by all means let us uncover the facts and issues, and cease clouding them with such mindless hype.

To be clear (again), I am in fact opposed to the concept of your internet service/access provider (ISP or IAP) charging based on the specific content or source of the content. Whether the content comes from my own web site, a government web site, a major mainstream content publisher, or Google or Microsoft or whoever, the source URL should not be an issue. This is what I think "network neutrality" is supposed to be about.

But... I am a strong proponent of fair economic compensation for the transport of those bits, regardless of their source.

There are still a significant number of socialists out there who think that all services, including internet access, should be provided by the governement at no charge, and these people will continue to push the socialist agenda in any and all forums.

Okay, so the socialists want information access to be "free". Sorry, but the answer is "No". Actually, that's not quite true since you can walk into a lot of libraries and actually get free internet access, and I do think that is a good idea. But I believe that Stross is really talking about free delivery to the private home.

Here's a myth that Stross used to just before the close of his article:

IN his debut keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show two weeks ago, one of Google's founders, Larry Page, credited the "dreamers in universities" who had had the foresight to create a network system without gatekeepers, which made it "maximally flexible" to permit the unplanned appearance of the World Wide Web. That, in turn, had made possible the unplanned appearance of Google.

His claim that the Internet was a system "without gatekeepers" is completely false, and complete nonsense. There are and have always been all manner of "gatekeepers". Originally, only the annointed elite at universities and labs and government agencies were even permitted to have access at all. You call that a lack of gatekeepers? Domain name management, domain name registration, web hosting, etc. -- you call that a lack of gatekeepers? And when the Internet was opened to the general public, people immediately ran into yet another form of gatekeeper, the internet service/access provider (ISP/IAP). In short, there have always been gatekeepers for "the net". But, importantly, none of these gatekeepers have ever prevented a Google or even me from setting up a web site and pursuing our "dreams". And, just as importantly, nothing that the so-called "Baby Bells" have proposed to do interfere either. Nothing that Verizon, et al have proposed to do in anyway interfere with any "unplanned appearances". If Google wanted to re-run their original start up plan for their search engine today or under Verizon's new "rules", none of the gatekeeping functions being proposed would in any way get in the way of their "unplanned appearance". Stross' comments in that paragraph are both misleading and simply irrelevant to starting up any new Internet service.

The simple truth that Stross does not disclose is that the network architecture that the so-called visionaries put in place back in the 1970's and 1980's and 1990's simply wasn't designed for high-volume, high-demand, non-text media content. That's where the problems lie that are the proximate motivation for the initiatives of the big carriers.

In summary, and just to be clear, I am in favor of true "network neutrality", but I also believe that the communications carriers and ISPs need to be appropriately compensated for actual economic costs of servicing the bandwidth required for very high-volume and high-demand audio and video content and the costs of building out a newer network infrastructure that can more readily handle high-bandwidth media content.

Stross' closing paragraph is as misleading as his entire article:

More unplanned appearances will follow - but only if the ecosystem is protected from tromping telephone companies that are genetically incapable of understanding "maximally flexible."

To repeat: "unplanned appearances" are not threatened by anything the big carriers are proposing. Moreover, we shouldn't feel that we should be expending enormous energy protecting the existing ecosystem, but we instead should focus on establishing and promoting a new network infrastructure that can support both the existing ecosystem as well as enable a new ecosystem of bandwidth-intensive, rich, high-volume, high-demand non-text media content.

In final summary, yes, let's protect network neurality, but let's also assure that network bandwidth expansion can be funded in an economically sensible manner. The narrow-minded approach put forth by Stross serves no useful purpose, other than help him sell his books, and maybe not even that.

-- Jack Krupansky


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