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Doc Searls on the Internet

Doc Searls is a terrific thinker who "gets" the Internet. He was one of several responsible for The Cluetrain Manifesto and his most recent book - The Intention Economy is on my short list of to-read books.

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

Lessig, Doc Searls, and Others Call on Gov Perdue to Veto TWC Bill

As readers know, we have devoted a lot of effort to educating everyone about Time Warner Cable's Bill in North Carolina to kill local authority to build broadband networks. As time runs out for NC Governor Perdue to kill this terrible legislation with her veto pen, we have seen many more calls on the Governor to act on behalf of local businesses and residents rather than on behalf of TWC and CenturyLink.

We've written more on this legislation than almost any other topic (all of it available here), so we want to highlight other recent posts.

Some notable recent calls to action come from Larry Lessig's Rootstrikers:

North Carolina has one of the nation's most impressive community broadband movements. Locally owned, state of the art networks are delivering fast, cheap Internet across the state. Big telecom companies--Time Warner Cable in particular--are not happy with their success. They've spent millions on lobbying state lawmakers. Now, the North Carolina legislature has passed a bill that bans competition from community broadband networks. Under this legislation, local communities would be held hostage to the corporate broadband networks that have given America second-rate networks everywhere.

Josh Levy of Free Press wrote the following in Ars Technica:

Predictably, the big cable companies view these municipal upstarts as major threats. Companies like Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink may be unwilling to extend their networks to communities like Cedar Grove, but they don't want anyone else doing it either—such an incursion would pose a threat to North Carolina’s de facto cable duopoly. Ironically, the weapon these traditionally regulation-shy companies have turned to in order to fight the municipal broadband effort is regulation.

Doc Searls also weighed in:

Here’s a simple fact for Governor Perdue to ponder: In the U.S. today, the leading innovators in Internet build-out are cities, not phone and cable companies. Look at Chatanooga and Lafayette — two red state cities that are doing an outstanding job of building infrastructure that attracts and supports new businesses of all kinds. Both are doing what no phone or cable companies are able or willing to do. And both are succeeding in spite of massive opposition by phone and cable companies.

And finally, Rick Yuzzi from ZCorum

In my opinion, a city should be able to set up a broadband business. It’s not likely to do so unless there is a compelling need in the community. If they do, and they provide a well run and profitable service, the service will survive. If it’s poorly run and a drain on city resources, citizens can vote with their dollars, as well as at the ballot box.