It's the Internet, stupid

Response to FCC Notice of Inquiry: Spending government money on broadband is not all that good unless broadband's synonymous for "Internet".

Last week I co-signed a response to an FCC Notice of Inquiry on developing a national broadband plan for the United States. The gist of the response is simple: high-speed connectivity should not be the goal, but high-speed connectivity to what we have come to know as the Internet should be. This sounds like a no-brainer, but that is far from the case.

(The NOI -- which had a June 8 deadline for comments -- came in response to a requirement buried in the 400-page American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e, the stimulus bill). The bill directs the FCC to deliver a National Broadband Plan to Congress by Feb. 17, 2010, and the FCC wanted to know what people thought should be in such a plan.

(For more on comments to the FCC, see Network World story headlined "National broadband happy talk papers over net neutrality fight" here)  

The response I co-signed was developed by Internet pundit David Isenburg with help from a bunch of folks including Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase and writer David Weinberger. About 40 Internet-active folks co-signed. It should not have been necessary to say what this response says because one would think that anyone looking at what Congress asked for and knowing anything about history would have assumed that expanding high-speed connectivity to the Internet should be the goal of the national broadband plan. But many of the organizations that now bring the Internet to most people in their homes do not see the Internet, as it has been deployed, as all that much of a good thing.

The FCC doesn't make it easy to find responses to the NOI (To find them, go here and under "Proceeding" you want to type 09-51. Then type the name of the company you'd like to search for in the "Filed on Behalf of" box). Predictably, the carriers want federal money but no openness rules to go along with it. And it's not just the carriers - some content providers would also like to not have an open Internet - ESPN, for example, is now trying to force ISPs to pay for its content.

The economics of the Internet is not an easy topic to understand in the best of times and having the government wave money is not the best way to create a rational discussion. A rational discussion is just what mathematician Andrew Odlyzko has recently published in a paper titled "Network neutrality, search neutrality, and the never-ending conflict between efficiency and fairness in markets."Odlyzko covers a lot of ground in this paper but one recurring thread is the carrier's inability to properly evaluate the strengths and value of their networks. This inability will undoubtably color their responses to the NOI.

The response I co-signed urges the FCC to ensure that any federal money be spent to extend the Internet and not to enable new carrier walled gardens. There is a place for you to sign if you agree.

Disclaimer: Harvard uses the Internet (a lot) but has not expressed an opinion on this NOI, so the support is mine alone.

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