Sunday, June 08, 2014

Moving the fight for Net Neutrality

It's a given that Washing is bought and paid for by the top 1%. Sure, they want to be the lucky folks who make all the decisions, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. When it comes to broadband, we see those consequences as slow connections compared to other developed countries, fights over priority access and continual political lobbying and misrepresentation of the facts. Monopoly power provides for perverse incentives.

There are many who are now claiming that reclassification of the ISPs as Title II common carriers is the solution. I am one of them and although I promote reclassification, I am concerned that this won't happen. Even if it did, it might not be enough. There is little to zero political will for reclassification among the top 1%. Remember, we're dealing with captured regulators, people who work for an agency filled with the desire to work in a cushy 6-figure salaried job with one of the monopolies they regulate. That agency is the Federal Communications Commission, aka, the FCC.

We're dealing with a problem that stems from a decision made back in 2001 by then FCC chairman, Michael Powell, son of Colin Powell. Michael is now president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a "union" of monopolies. Imagine the kind of collusion that can happen in *their* board meetings. "Ahhhh...I can just smell the grass at my second home on the west coast of Spain." Yeah, that kind of monopoly, and we're paying for it.

It may seem like the battle is lost, but remember, the internet is made up of hardware and software, with a lot of people mixed in. Robert Cringely has identified a decades old problem that could free up a lot of network capacity that will soon be solved. It's called bufferbloat, the built-in tendency for network hardware to maintain buffers that are too large. This tendency can make networks unusable, but it makes for great sales for the people who sell network capacity.

Bufferbloat is an important technical problem to solve, but it doesn't solve the policy question. Yes, the ISPs are trying hard to keep congestion up so that they can sell more capacity. They want to make as much money as they can on selling capacity before the bufferbloat problem is solved. Even if that problem is solved, it still doesn't solve the problem of priority.

Assume for the moment, that the FCC does pass new regulations that allow a sort of "fast lane". This might seem like a great idea until you have an industry disrupting idea, turn it into a website and start to try to sell services to customers. The incumbent players can see your site, and if they don't like it, they might not be able to snuff you out, but they can make access to your site mighty slow until you pay up. They may even be able to make you pay enough that running your shiny new business becomes unprofitable, or at least, unpalatable.

Because the policy makers are bought and paid for by the 1%, and the same 1% don't want to have to deal with competition, they will find ways to make other people pay enough that competition is negligible or non-existent. Remember, monopolies tend to capture regulators.

Here is where we can move the front. That front has already seen scorched earth for the incumbent providers. That front is community broadband. In over 400 cities across this great land, citizens are accessing the internet on low-cost, very high speed fiber, without interference from incumbent carriers. And yes, we call it, "community broadband".

Most of these cities are small and are simply not worth the money to service. Cities like Princeton, Massachusetts have voted overwhelmingly in favor of building a network for themselves. Monticello, Minnesota has worked hard to build their own network, was sued by a local incumbent and now has two networks, one public, one private - with the private network trying to lowball the public one until there is a call on the bonds that financed the public network. Then the private network can put the screws to the public again.

In just about every example where fiber has been installed, from Chattanooga to Spanish Fork, the economy does better, people are happier, real estate prices rise. This is what incumbent carriers are fighting against - a better life for the rest of us.

I believe that the net neutrality battle becomes moot when community broadband takes over and provides open-access service to the communities they serve. Priority will not be an issue because community broadband has an economic interest in adding capacity. The incumbent providers do not share that interest.

One other thing that needs to be done to set the matter straight for the incumbents a revision of the no-compete clause of the franchise agreements. A mechanism needs to be put in place that says, "if you can't keep up with the world in setting speed and pricing, we build our own network alongside yours and flip the switch." Putting that into the next agreement will get the ISPs to sit up and take notice of the will, of the people.

Why? Because all power resides in the People.
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