A Network Neutrality Primer

For those just tuning in, Network Neutrality (aka “NN”, becuase every public policy deserves its own acronym) has gone from sleepy tech issue to major policy fight. So I have prepared a rather lengthy primer below for folks who want a deeper understanding of what’s happening (at least as of today, May 3, 2006).

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COPE-ing nicely, thank you

Throughout the public interest community, one can find much wailing an gnashing of teeth over today’s Commerce Committee mark up of the Communications Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2006 (COPE). “A Bad Day for Media Democracy” reads the headline at Save Access.

Well, I’m not happy with COPE so far, but I think it turned into a good day for democracy, with better days to come. Because if you thought today was grim, you weren’t here for the absolute spanking net neutrality got in subcommittee in the beginning of April. In the week since the SavetheInternet campaign got underway, four democrats switched their votes on Net Neutrality from “anti” to “pro.” The day before mark up, the Republican chair of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust in the Judiciary Committee and their new task force on telecom declared all out war against the Commerce Committee effort to eliminate a free and open internet. The telcos, who earlier this month boasted they could get the bill past both houses and signed into law before the election recess, don’t sound nearly as confident despite today’s win.

What changed? Until the Subcommittee Spanking, folks let the tech companies do the heavy lifting and fought by the standard lobbying play book. Hill meetings, inside the beltway briefings, insider baseball, blah blah blah. Google v. Verizon, people said, and tuned out. And while the tech lobbyist worked with us public interest folks, one could not help but detect a certain — how shall I put it? — condescension and cluelessness as to how this “public interest” stuff really works. It kinda felt like posing for photo ops, while the “real” decisions about spending money on messaging and what strategies to persue and the ever-important smoke filled room meetings never involved anything as messy as the public.

And, as usual, the tech folks got spanked. Spanked real good. The kinda spanking you usually have to pay good money for if you fancy that kind of thing. Because despite having more money than the telcos and cable cos combined, the tech cos can never win using telco and cable co rules. Because the telcos and cable cos wrote the goddam rules and have played this game by this rulebook for a longer than most tech CEOs have been alive. As a result, the telcos and cable cos are very, very good at it. Meanwhile, as my friend and fellow traveller Jeff Chester at CDD observed the tech companies still can’t figure out how to play this game, or what they want to get out of it if they could figure it out. Or maybe they just like getting spanked, and miss the days when the intellectual property mafia would toast their little bottoms for them with legislation like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

So, while still working with the tech lobbyists etc., the folks in the public interest community finally said “Screw this. You guys may be into getting spanked, but we prefer winning. And the way you win in democracy is by busting open the process, getting people to see what’s at stake, and reminding elected officials that their job is to do what’s best for their constituents not to referee industry food fights.” And thus, through the work of Free Press, Common Cause, Moveon and a host of others, was the SavetheInternet campaign born. And when the mainstream media refused to cover the story as too technical or boring or against the interest of their parent mega-companies, 500 bloggers took up the cry. And all this free speech stuff, that the telcos and the cable cos and the memebrs of Congress ignored because it doesn’t have a trade group and you can’t quantify it in dollar terms, really worked. And more and more people are writing letters and calling members and reminding them that there’s an election this fall.

There’s a lesson here; one backed up by the utter triumph of the pro-munibroadband forces against proposed amendments to outlaw munibroadband, or even to grandfather existing state-level bans. YOU CAN’T OUTSOURCE CITIZENSHIP. You can’t let “the tech companies” or even “the consumer advocates” or anyone speak for you. Citizenship carries responsibilities that go beyond the ritual of voting every two years. But when citizens wake up and speak up, and speak to each other, they find — to their surprise — they are strong. They find they have power. And they find that being a citizen may take hard work, but it is so, so, SO much better and more satisfying than being a couch potato. As the great Jewish sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not me then who? If not now, when?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the tech companies are on our side. They have a lot to offer, lots of resources, and, if they decide they are tired of of playing by the old rules and getting spanked, can really help push this effort over the top. But if we as citizens let this degenerate to a fight with Google, Microsoft and Silicon Valley venture capitalists who like tech start ups on one side v. AT&T, Comcast and Wall Street analysts who like monopolies on the other, with Congress brokering a deal between the two, then we citizens lose no matter which side wins. We can, we must, speak for ourselves.

When Ben Franklin left the Constitutional Convention someone shouted to him from the crowd “Mr. Franklin, what have you given us?” He answered “A republic — IF YOU CAN KEEP IT.” The Sausage Factory of democracy is a messy business, but it’s worth it. We can either let other folks make the sausage and eat whatever shit they put in, or we can wade in and make sure it comes out alright. We lost today’s battle. But we are turning the tide in the war. And if we keep growing and going like we have in the last week, we will win.

Stay tuned . . . .

An Examination of the Economics of Whitacre Tiering

Today’s lecture in my occassional “Economics of Market Power” series comes from the hot policy debate over whether we should let dsl (and cable) providers charge third parties for “premium” speeds to reach their customers. I call this behavior “Whitacre Tiering” (as distinguished from other sorts of tiering traffic or bandwidth) in honor of AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, a chief proponent of the concept.

Last time, I explained why permitting Whitacre tiering would be a disaster for democracy. This time, I’ll explain why Whitacre tiering produces really, really awful results from an economic perspective. It gives actors all the wrong incentives, adds new layers of uncertainty and inefficiency to the market generally, and discourages investment in bandwidth capacity at every stage of the network (thus aggravating the broadband incentives problem you may have read about recently, rather than solving it, as some defenders of Whitacre tiering maintain).

But hey, don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger! Go do the math yourselves. All you need is a basic knowledge of Econ 101. OTOH, if you have a religious belief, possibly supported by self-interest or fueled by PAC money, that all deregulation is good and all regulation is bad, mmmkay (not that Senator Enisgn is likely to ever read this), I expect you will remain unpersuaded. Rather like passionate believers in Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the cosmos, I expect the true believer neo-cons, the companies whose self-interests are implicated, and their wholly owned subsidiaries in state and Federal legislatures, to devise theoretical models and epicycles to explain away all the nasty empirical problems and assure me I live in the delightful world of competition and frictionless switching to competitors.

It moves, it moves . . . .

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What the $#@! is the “Public” Internet

So here I am, at one of these DC discussion fests between “stakeholders” on “network neutrality.” Net neutrality is what we talk about post Brand X . It means the provider can’t mess with the packets (other than to screen malware or engage in network management). Needless to say, the incumbent wireline providers are not happy with this thought, while all the time proclaiming they will never, ever mess with content.

So what incumbents float instead is the concept of providing “enhanced service” to those with content who will pay extra to be given “priority” to the broadband provider’s subscribers. (“Hey, nice packets you got there. Be a shame if anything . . . happened to them on the way to the customer. But good news. We’re here to offer you a ‘premium’ service that gaurantees you speedy delivery! I suppose I shouldn’t mention this, but your competitor has already signed up . . .”)

This is being justified, in part, as offering premium service on the “private internet” as opposed to the “public interent.”

What the #$@! is a “public internet?” Unless there is some remnant of the NSF backbone out there, or we’re talking about the government funded root servers, there is no such thing as a “public” internet and never was. “The Internet” (back when everyone always used to capitalize it) is a “network of networks” which, since the mid-1990s, have been private networks.

So why are wireline incumbents pushing the “public internet” meme? See below . . .

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My Take on WSIS and DNS

I will be the first to acknowledge that some good came out of World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) last week in bringing together a lot of people to talk about important issues. On the key item in the news, what would happen to ICANN and management of the domain name system, the U.S. won hands down. And while I have no desire whatsoever to see the DNS run by some UN-type organization, I understand why the U.S. is not exactly popular in other countries.

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My Day With the Supremes

There are advantages to being a member of the Supreme Court Bar. One is, you get to go and hear the arguments from the Supreme Court Bar section. Guess what I did today! While you will get tons of info from other websites, this is probably the only place you will see someone say that Justice Rehnquist now sounds like a bad combination of Darth Vader and the Emperor from “Return of the Jedi”….

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TotSF: Industry Mobilizes to Stop Philly WiFi

Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! As recorded in this article about last night’s community meeting in Philly, Verizon has mobilized to squash municipal wifi in Pennsylvania. This little gem, called House Bill 30, is a classic: it provides huge new public subsidies for Verizon while squeezing out competitors. My analysis below.

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