Keeping the Issue Alive

Friends of Broadband should be pleased with President-elect Obama’s proposed broadband stimulus program, which proposes $6 billion in grants for wireless and other forms of broadband infrastructure. Granted, the package isn’t as large as many had wished; Educause had asked for $32 billion, ITIF wanted $10 billion, and Free Press wanted $40 billion, but this is a good start. Harold Feld puts the size of the grant package in perspective and praises it on his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog.

But there’s no pleasing some people. Free Press has mounted an Action Alert, asking its friends to oppose the stimulus package as it currently stands. The Freeps, who run the “Save the Internet” campaign, want strings attached to the money, insisting it only be given to projects that meet their requirements:

1. Universal: focused on connecting the nearly half of the country stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
2. Open: committed to free speech and without corporate gatekeepers, filters or discrimination.
3. Affordable: providing faster speeds at lower prices.
4. Innovative: dedicated to new projects only and available to new competitors, including municipalities and nonprofits.
5. Accountable: open to public scrutiny so we can ensure that our money isn’t being spent to prop up stock prices and support market monopolies.

These goals are not even consistent with each other. Half of America uses broadband today, and half doesn’t. Most of the unconnected half have chosen not to subscribe to services that reach their homes already, opting to remain outside the broadband revolution for their own reasons. So we can’t very well pursue numbers 1 and 4 at the same time. Most of this money will be spent in rural areas that are currently served by Wireless ISPs like Lariat. Rural population isn’t as large as urban population, so going into unserved or underserved areas isn’t going to do much for the digital divide-by-choice that plagues America’s inner cities.

I suspect there’s some self-interest involved here, such that Free Press wants to keep the issue of America’s place in the global ranking of broadband penetration about where it is (between 7th and 15th, depending on whose numbers you like) in order to raise money, have a soapbox, and keep on complaining.

I don’t see any other way to explain this.

UPDATE: Freep has sent letters to the committee chairs with much less incendiary language, but arguing the same line: the Internet is a telecom network and has to be regulated the way that telecom networks have always been regulated. This angle is clearly good if you’re a career telecom regulator, but it’s blind to the technical realities of IP network management. Making an IP network fair and functional requires “discrimination”, and the Freep doesn’t get that. Not even a little bit.

This organization has established an amazing ability to confuse its self-interest with the public interest in the short time that it’s been around. Freep’s first issue, after all, was a series of regulations designed to prevent the rapacious newspaper industry from taking over the television industry. They still push for limits on TV and newspaper cross-ownership, and only got into the Internet-as-telephone fight to advance their initial cause. The number of people who think free societies need to be protected from “powerful newspapers” is vanishingly small, or course, around the same size as the flat-earther demographic.

UPDATE 2: It gets even stranger. Open access provisions are already in the bill, as Matthew Lasar points out on the Ars Technica blog:

As for the net neutrality and open access ideas; well, they’re already in the bill (PDF; see p. 53). NTIA, the executive branch agency tasked with disbursing the broadband money, is required to ensure that all grant recipients operate both wired and wireless services on an “open access basis,” though it’s left up to NTIA to define what this means and how it works.

In addition, anyone taking grant money must “adhere to the principles contained in the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband policy statement,” which lays out four basic neutrality provisions for Internet companies. In other words, although “network neutrality” isn’t mentioned, it’s already in the bill in a basic way. (Note that the FCC policy statement only protects “legal content,” however; it’s not a pure “end-to-end” packet delivery guarantee.)

Here’s a suggestion for the Freep: before issuing your next mouth-breathing Action Alert about a pending bill, read the damn thing. You won’t look like such a bunch of knee-jerk alarmists if you do.

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4 Responses to Keeping the Issue Alive

  1. Brett Glass says:

    Richard, I just read a very interesting article which reinforces what you say about people being “disconnected by choice.” It says that many young people nowadays, especially non-college-educated urbanites, find that a cell phone with SMS and perhaps a few other features (e.g. navigation and perhaps a Web browser which is too slow to be considered “broadband” but is fast enough for occasional use), is all they need. And, yes, they outnumber disconnected rural residents who do want to be on the Net.

    As for Free Press’ requirements, perhaps they should add “and a pony” to the list. Free Press, as is well known from the site it publishes under its alias “Save the Internet,” says that any ISP which prevents bandwidth hogging is being a “gatekeeper” or “filtering.” This means that points 2 and 3 above are also incompatible. As I mentioned in my testimony at http://www.brettglass.com/FCC/remarks.html, if an ISP can’t control costs, it can’t offer affordable pricing.

    And of course they want municipalities to come into the game. Unfair competition by government would destroy all “pure play” Internet providers, leaving only companies which offer other services (i.e. phones or TV) able to survive. In short, it would create duopoly.

  2. Brett Glass says:

    It’s even more disturbing to see that the bill attempts to enshrine the FCC’s “four principles” in law. By doing so, it would force providers to allow any application program — no matter how malicious — to be run against the network, no matter how much it harmed the quality of service of other users. Or whether or not it was a hacking tool — e.g. a port scanner. Or whether or not it was being used to set up a server for a third party, without compensation, on the ISP’s network. This provision must be fought.

  3. Harold Feld says:

    In fairness to FP, they probably hadn’t read the whole bill.

    I gotta say, the more I read in this bill, the more I like. There is a lot that will boost network efficiency overall in the other sections, which is why targeting broadband build out in unserved and underserved communities makes a great deal of sense.

  4. Brett Glass says:

    To those of us who really understand the business of rural broadband, Harold, the bill smells like a rotten herring.

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