Opponents of municipal broadband initiatives contend that public broadband projects are “failures” if they do generate “profits” in the amounts, and within the short time periods, that investors and the financial community expect of private corporations. To define success this way is to miss two fundamental points: (1) public entities have fundamentally different ways of creating economic benefits for the community than the private sector; and (2) municipalities often undertake a public communications initiative precisely because the project would not be profitable enough for a private company.
The Internet is More Important than Broadband
I encourage readers to visit Doc Searls post "Broadband vs. Internet" for a discussion about things that matter regarding the future of Internet access for most Americans.
The Internet is no more capable than the infrastructures that carry it. Here in the U.S. most of the infrastructures that carry the Internet to our homes are owned by telephone and cable companies. Those companies are not only in a position to limit use of the Internet for purposes other than those they favor, but to reduce the Net itself to something less, called “broadband.” In fact, they’ve been working hard on both.
There is a difference between the Internet and "broadband." Broadband is a connection that is always on and tends to be somewhat faster than the dial-up speeds of 56kbps. Broadband could connect you to anything... could be the Internet or to an AOL like service where some company decides what you can see, who you can talk to, and the rules for doing anything.
The Internet is something different. It is anarchic, in the textbook definitional sense of being leaderless. It is a commons. As Doc says,
The Internet’s protocols are NEA:
- Nobody owns them.*
- Everybody can use them, and
- Anybody can improve them.
Because no one owns it, few promote it or defend. Sure, major companies promote their connections to it (and when you connect to it, you are part of it) but they are promoting the broadband connection. And the biggest ones (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, etc) will do anything to increase the profits they make by being one of the few means of connecting to the Internet -- including charging much more and limiting what people can do over their connection, etc.
This is one reason the connections from major corporations are so heavily tilted toward download speeds -- they want consumers to consume content. Just about every community network built in the last 3-4 years offers symmetrical connections by contrast.
Last I heard, the fastest cable offering in the upstream direction was 12Mbps. Cox, our cable provider in Santa Barbara, gives us about 25Mbps down, but only 4Mbps up. Last time I talked to them (in June 2009), their plan was to deliver up to 100Mbps down eventually, but still only about 5Mbps up. That’s competitive as long as all you want is “content delivery.” But what about when you want to live “in the cloud,” and all your data is elsewhere? In the long run you’ll need a lot more upstream as well as downstream capacity for that. Internet service optimized for media delivery (where TV especially wants to go) won’t cut it. But then, most people aren’t looking at that. They’re looking at TV on their iPads over broadband, and thinking that’s way cool enough.
So here we are, smack up against what John Perry Barlow warned us about in Death From Above, way back in early 1995. There he wrote, “The cable companies and Baby Bells have a model for developing the next phase of telecom infrastructure which, were it applied to the design of physical superhighways, would have us building them with about five thousand lanes in one direction and one lane in the other.”
This is where Bob Frankson comes in, reminding us that the big cable and phone companies are good at billing, not connecting. Their methods and procedures are optimized to maximize their revenues, not to maximize the benefits of the Internet or anything else. Back to Doc:
The division is between what communications wonks crudely characterize as “net-heads” and “bell-heads.” Think of conflict as one betwee any and only. Net-heads want the Net to support anything. Bell-heads want communications systems optimized only for the businesses they prefer — namely, their own — and to avoid even talking about the Internet. (Bell-heads have never been comfortable with the Net, because it was not made to bill. TV and telephony are easy to bill, and so is “content” in general. Thanks to Apple’s and Google’s pioneering work —mostly in league with the operators — so now are apps.)
Community Broadband generally sides with the net-heads. The focus tends to be on what is best for the community as a whole, rather than what is good for a single company or industry. After all, if a community had a choice between one business providing 5,000 jobs and 500 businesses each providing 10 jobs, they would be crazy to opt for the single employer.
Verizon had been the only major company investing in next-generation networks with its FiOS deployment. It is done expanding -- unless you live in one of the wealth neighborhoods or suburbs that got it, you won't. AT&T has even ceased its pathetic U-Verse upgrades, even as they spend millions to prevent communities from building their own, much better networks. Communities that want to be relevant in 10 years take notice -- and take a good hard look at building a locally owned network that responds to the needs of the community.
Doc Searls photos used under creative commons license, courtesy of Flickr's Irisheyes