Why The Stimulus Speed Upgrades Are Right, Or Public Utility Meets Zeno's Paradox.

Many folks talk about broadband build out as if it were rural electrification. I do agree with this in one sense — it is a critical part of our infrastructure and links to our tradition of ensuring that we remain one country with access to vital services for all. In this respect, broadband is similar to telephone/voice, electric power, sewage, roads, and other other public utility/natural monopoly type investments. But it is fundamentally different from all of these in a fundamental way. Other public utilities have high initial construction cost, but then have very predictable maintenance and upgrade costs. This makes it possible to solve some problems with a huge one-time grant or, for the private sector to make a serious cap ex investment, but then budget for regular upgrades based on projected need and maintenance based on standard depreciation.

Not so broadband. As our technological capacity increases, we increase both the potential capacity for the network and our capacity to use the network in unpredictable ways. But we have neither public policy nor private sector models that acknowledge this — with the possible exception of Verizon, which solved the problem from their perspective by aggressively pulling fiber/overbuilding capacity as to current demand where profitable and aggressively selling off high cost rural regions. And, while that works for Verizon and its shareholders, it rather sucks from a public policy perspective.

I call this the Zeno’s Broadband Buildout Problem. No matter how much Achilles invests in build out, he will never catch up to the limit of possible upgrades. As I explain below, my tentative conclusion is that the right public policy result is a recognition that we don’t get to do a one time investment and go away, but need to continue to experiment to find sustainable models that factor in growth rather than simply look at build out followed by steady state. I’m not sure beyond that, other than my conviction that anyone who shrugs and says “that’s why the government shouldn’t do this at all” is definitely wrong.

OTOH, it also means I find the speed upgrade in the stimulus package — 45/15 for wireline and 3/1 for wireless — pretty good despite the fact that many of us want to reach the 100 mbps or even 1 gigabit/second capacity for future network needs. Broadband Achillies may not be able to catch up to Bandwidth Demand Tortois, but that doesn’t mean he gets to slack off either. A good swift stimulus in the patootie is actually a pretty good idea, given the open ended nature of the problem.

More below . . . .

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Of Bandwidth Hogs, QoS, and Regulatory Chameleons

I can live with the internet as a best efforts network. I can live with the internet as a regulated utility. What I absolutely cannot stand is the idiocy of the current regulatory scheme that allows broadband access providers to justify the deregulated state of a competitive best efforts environment because they need to provide a public utility.

Case in point, Comcast’s recent actions of cutting off “bandwidth hogs” and purportedly throttling BitTorrent traffic to its subscribers (Comcast denies it targets BitTorrent traffic). Comcast in its user agreement explicitly reserves the right to cut off users using “too much bandwidth” — although Comcast refuses to say how much bandwidth is “too much.” Comcast defends its actions (including the secrecy of the bandwidth limit) on the grounds that “bandwidth hogs” overload the system capacity and thus slow down everyone’s use of the system.

As I discuss below, Comcast and the other broadband providers are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They claim they have no liability for anything and should not be regulated because they are providing “best efforts” services and everyone knows it. But when they want to cut off users, tier traffic, or indulge in other behavior that sticks it to subscribers they haul out the “Quality of Service (QoS)” and “critical infrastructure” arguments. “What about voice?” They cry. “What about poor crippled Tiny Tim and his medical monitoring unit, cut off by some bandwidth hog downloading pirated child pornography and Al Qeda instructional videos (which, we will admit, makes a very interesting mash up when viewed via deep packet inspection)? You have to let us do whatever we want and charge whatever we want because people are relying on us for critical services.”

Of course, historically, companies that provided critical services were “public utilities.” At which point, the telcos and cable cos amazingly morph back into laissez faire “best efforts” providers and subscribers need to know there are no guarantees and that which we tell you three times may or may not be true.

My further analysis of the amazing regulatory chameleon, the private public utility, below….

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Outsourcing Big Brother Redux and Network Neutrality

About a year ago, I gave a speech to the ACLU called Outsourcing Big Brother. In it I argued that a big problem with consolidation in the media and telecommuniations industries is that it facilitates a partnership between big government and big business in which we, as citizens, lose.

Yesterday’s revelation in USA Today provides yet another chilling reminder of why we need to embed principles like network neutrality and competition into law, and vigorously defend them if we care about our civil liberties.

As I keep saying, since the telcos and cable cos and others keep wanting to frame it this way, Network Neutrality isn’t AT&T v. Microsoft. Yes, the economics matter, and, as I’ve said before, I think abolishing NN is a disasterous economic policy. But, at the end of the day, I care because it goes to the heart of democracy and self-governance.

More below . . .

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Farewell to Abernathy

Last Friday, December 9, marked the departure of Republican Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy. The FCC therefore briefly drops to a 2-1 Democratic majority. But the Senate should confirm Deborah Tate, a Republican Public Utilities Commissioner (and neighbor of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) before it adjorns, bringing the FCC back to 2-2.

A few reflections on Abernathy and some thoughts about the likely new Commission below.

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