NOTE: The following entry is being mirrored at the new Infrastructure Held Hostage blog.
We live in an uneasy relationship with the past.Photograph courtesy RPI
The whole past is available to us, there to teach us lessons, to give us Clues that can help us avoid yesterday’s mistakes.
We can find multiple analogies within it. While our politics may seem, to some, analogous to those of the early years of the Cold War, in terms of technology they’re far more like those of the early Progressive Era, the early 1900s.
So imagine if the railroads of that time controlled all the roads.
That’s precisely what AT&T and Verizon, aka Bell East and Bell West (making Qwest and BellSouth into Bell North and, what do you know?) are doing to the Internet right now.
Jay Gould should have been so clever.
They’ve gotten away with it (so far) because the Internet uses the old phone network (cars using the old railroad tracks) for transport. As with railroad tracks and cars, the phone network brings irrelevant, even obnoxious, artifacts with it.
Take out the frequencies used for phone calls (which you can easily do with VOIP) and your DSL line could handle up to 7 Mbps down, no problem, without changing out the underlying technology.
Still don’t believe me? If you have a home LAN (and millions do) you’re assigning IP addresses to each PC on the network, creating your own private Internet.
Your transport to the Internet backbone could be delivered just as easily with a cable modem as with the phone.
- When the cable company offers you phone service they’re not rebuilding the old infrastructure, just modeling it on data.
- Internet transport could be delivered over power lines, and where my inlaws live, in Flatonia, Texas, it is.
- Internet transport could even be delivered using radios, through a Wireless ISP (WISP) using the shared unlicensed WiFi frequencies your home network (and garage door opener, and cordless phone) use.
Whether that WiFi cloud is owned by your city or a private company is irrelevant – it would work.
Many large companies create their own networks, linking to the Internet only at competitive peering locations where they can get the best prices on fiber transport. Long distance fiber remains a competitive market (for now). Their fear is that, with so much of the U.S. transport market now held by the Bells, their prices could be squeezed just as yours are.
Given that the cable operators have powerful lobbies, and cable does not cover everyone, the phone companies are, in their own lobbying for privilege, allowing them to exist. It’s also convenient. Their current efforts at “improvement” are aimed solely at delivering TV to homes, as cable does, not at improving Internet service.
By allowing this dual-monopoly on consumer Internet transport, or duopoly, the cable and phone monopolies mask reality. Having a choice between only cable and a Bell for ISP service is like having a choice between only Coke and Pepsi for the liquid you need to live. It’s a false choice.
In his book $200 Billion Broadband Scandal, Bruce Kushnick details how we got from the open, competitive market of 10 years ago to today’s duopoly. But I’m more interested in how we get out of this, and what a truly competitive Internet market might look like.
The first Clue is for you to understand that the Bells don’t need to exist. If the Bells went under, and their networks sold to the highest bidders, people would operate it. They would get together and interconnect their networks. They would provide service, with the current capital written down to its real value.
The second Clue for you to understand is that the alternative to monopoly isn’t communism, but competition. If the Bells had to wholesale their networks, as they did under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, that would be fine. If a federal law allowed cities to build their own Internets, that would be enough. If the Bells were only required to share their poles with Wireless ISPs and other competitors, even at a small profit over cost, that would work, too.
The third Clue for you to understand is that the present system is not tenable. Despite their success in creating an Internet duopoly, Verizon and AT&T are each worth about 40% less than they were just five years ago. The old phone network, based on wires, poles, and switches that must be written off over 20 years or more, cannot survive in a world of Moore’s Law where cheap radios and shared fiber can do the same thing. The only way they can survive is through laws that mandate you pay them whatever they demand, for whatever they choose to give you. It’s almost like the government forcing you to buy cigarettes.
Imagine if cars could have been forced to run on rails 100 years ago, and pay monopoly rail rates for the privilege. Any nation which had merely built roads would have buried us long ago. All the economic progress of the last century would have been impossible.
That is just what is happening. The Internet is the new road network. Your PC, your laptop, your PDA, your cell phone, that’s a car.
Don’t let it be crippled. Let the Bells die a natural death. Make them, by refusing to allow continued government life support, by pulling that plug of coercion that keeps them alive.
Free the Internet for competition.