• United States

Fast bits as a right for the masses?

Apr 12, 20043 mins

President Bush last month pushed “a national goal for broadband technology” that would ensure “universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007.” A laudable goal indeed, but one that we just might have to cross a chasm or two to reach.

Bush brought up this “bold plan for broadband” during a speech to first-time homebuyers in New Mexico. The more broadband users there are in the U.S., “the more likely it is America will stay on the competitive edge of world trade,” he said.

The president said having more broadband users would have an effect on innovation in education and the ability “to have interesting new ways to receive doctors’ advice in the home.” He also said “we don’t need to tax access to broadband.”

Not to be outdone, presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) has his own plan for making broadband available in urban and rural America by mimicking the successful rural electrification program. His Web site also notes that “Economists have estimated that widespread, high-speed broadband access could increase our national GDP by as much as $500 billion annually by 2006.”

The idea that high-speed Internet access should be a national goal is not new. A number of years ago Congress told the FCC to ensure high-speed access (politicians say “broadband” these days because it’s even harder to define) would be available to all Americans in a timely manner.

And I’ve written on this topic in the past (see The FCC and fast bits and Utopia, except for the phone companies).

Some real problems will have to be overcome to reach anything like Bush’s goal, with the biggest one being cost. The FCC found that few people were willing to pay much for high-speed Internet access. Bush’s solution is competition to force down prices. Considering what the underlying service costs to provide, it seems competition by itself will be enough.

Just as big a problem, but not often mentioned, is what functionality broadband service will provide. If the broadband pipe is going to drive innovation it cannot be full of filters and diversion valves. What got us to where we are in Internet technology is the ability for anyone to run any application he wants without having to ask permission from ISPs or to pay extra. The pipes have to be able to be open.

Yes, that does raise security risks, but letting pipe providers use mitigation of this risk as an excuse to disable innovation on the part of the users is too high a price to pay. We will not get the benefits of innovation if we are not allowed to innovate.

The other thing that is needed to enable innovation is the ability for users to put up their own servers, such as Web servers, VoIP servers and servers for yet undeveloped applications. This requires users to be able to get enough fixed (not dynamic) IP addresses so they don’t have to use network address translators. There are plenty of IPv4 addresses available to provide every connected household with enough fixed IP addresses to more than adequately serve their needs. What’s more, the supply of addresses expands more than 4 billion-fold when IPv6 gets deployed.

By all means, let’s embark on a bold plan for broadband, but let’s also do what is needed to ensure that the plan will enable the desired innovation instead of turning Internet users into captives of the carriers and content providers.

Disclaimer: Harvard sees stately progress as bold plans, but has not expressed a view on broadband to all Americans.