American Culture

Basic principles for building America’s Internet future

By Martin Bosworth

Crossposted at Open Left.

Senator Dick Durbin has begun a several-night series of conversations with the blogosphere on how to build a set of principles for improving American broadband and Internet development. This is a watershed moment and a fantastic (if long overdue) chance to make the people’s voices heard on this most important issue. You don’t have to be a tech policy wonk to understand the multilayered importance of the Internet, and you don’t need to read all the latest blogs or whatever to know that our country’s Internet development is appalling.

So with that in mind, here’s what I put to Senator Durbin–a few basic principles for what our country needs to build its Internet future.

* Net Neutrality: All companies must agree to uphold the essential rule that carriers do not have the right to favor one form of content over another. Infrastructure providers should be free to charge content providers fees to host their services, just as you pay a Web host to host your site. But infrastructure providers should not be able to block end users from reaching your content unless you pay extra. Nor should they deprioritize access to your content in favor of their own or anyone else who does pay their fee. Network providers profit from building networks, content providers make content, and the end user should be free to choose the network provider that provides them the best service, the content provider that makes them the best content, etc. It’s that simple.

* Carterfone: The Internet should be managed under the same standard as the 1968 Carterfone decision, which enabled non-telephone devices to connect to telephone lines as long as they did not harm the network. This led to the birth of answering machines, fax machines, and dial-up access to the Internet. Now the Internet powers a host of new applications, such as VoIP, Skype, podcasting, and so on–and these should all be protected by the same standard as Carterfone.

* Wireless Access: Wireless providers enjoy the same sort of market-distorting monopolies as traditional telecoms, including locking devices in to their network, punitive contract fees and termination fees, dropping customers for complaining too much, and so on. Wireless mobile Internet is becoming an economic, social, and political force just as “landline” Internet is–you can pay your bills via your phone, check your e-mail, get public access information and emergency messages, and so on. The iPhone is an apex example of how monopoly distorts the market–the handset was completely built by Apple, with no subsidizing from AT&T, but you still have to pay up to $600 for it, as if it had been. Further, it does not work with any provider or any other network but AT&T, so if you leave AT&T’s service, you’ve ended up with a shiny $600 paperweight. Wireless providers should be held to the principles of Net Neutrality and open access, and be governable under the Carterfone standard–any device should connect to any network.

* “Affordable Housing” for Broadband: As has been documented extensively of late here and elsewhere, incumbent telecom providers are rolling out services chiefly to rich urban and exurban areas, catering mostly to white, middle-to-high income residents. Since the incumbent telecom companies failed to get favorable broadband legislation passed in Congress, they’ve been rolling out video franchising legislation through intensive lobbying and kickbacks on the state level. These agreements enable telecoms to bypass existing regulations for cable companies and start buildouts in areas of their choosing, a practice known as “redlining.” This not only screws the neighborhoods being locked out of Internet service, but the cable companies as well–they’re forced to compete with an albatross around their necks that telecoms are bypassing. Federal legislation should mandate that just as new housing development projects set aside space for “workforce housing,” any new buildout should set aside funds to develop low-cost broadband connectivity (such as naked DSL) when rolling out expensive new services. Any loss of revenue incurred from these buildouts should be more than adequately regained by the new customers the buildout will bring in from across the income levels. Further, Federal law should set a “floor” for states to negotiate franchise agreements that enables municipalities and towns to add additional conditions before approving a buildout. I also recommend support of Sen. Lautenberg’s Community Broadband Act, which would encourage public-private partnerships for broadband development and prevent states from blocking municipalities’ negotiations with multiple providers.

* Reform the Universal Service Fund: A common complaint of telecoms against building out to low-income or rural areas is that it’ll cost too much. But there already is a massive fund for this very purpose–the USF. Yet more often than not, the fund goes right back into telecoms’ coffers with no money spent on actual development. The USF needs to be much more strictly enforced and managed specifically to fund rural broadband infrastructure development–I’d even say that telecoms which charge the USF should submit to regular reviews by third parties (The GAO, perhaps?) to monitor their progress. Those companies that fail to meet the goals should stop charging the USF to their customers, thus saving them money.

* Better Data Collection: I recommend support of Sen. Daniel Inouye’s “Broadband Data Improvement Act,” which would mandate improved standards for data collection on broadband penetration, rather than the flawed system currently employed by the FCC, as well as authorizing the GAO to conduct its own independent surveys of broadband adoption and availability. Only through the most comprehensive, honest, available information gathering can we make the right decisions.

21 replies »

  1. Well struck, Martin. Another brief suggestion – and one that’s a lot less snarky than it seems: how about we force AT&T to divest itself of the FCC, which has in recent years been a wholly owned subsidiary.

    And by the way – if you HandsOff folks jump into this comment thread, you need to lead with full disclosure.

  2. What he said on both counts.

    Jon Adelstein and Mike Copps are good fighters for the common man on the FCC, but they’re outnumbered 3-2 by Republicans. Kevin Martin is responsible for some of the most telecom-favorable policy decisions I’ve ever seen–he makes Michael Powell look like an antitrust lawyer.

    And as for HOTI trolls and their astroturf allies in other sectors, I just say this: You better bring your A-game if you want to troll here, because we’re not new at this, and we WILL out you–and then take your arguments apart piece by grisly piece. So think carefully before you step in the arena.

  3. Yeah, this is HOT HOT HOT issue for me.

    Not only does it big MATTER to me, but I am willing to leave home, walk with signs, carry a megaphone and be a pest in the name of FREE SPEECH.

    Thanks to the author for some great clarity and contribution to the very scary times we live in.

  4. Pingback:
  5. Martin,

    As someone who’s been redlined, I appreciate that aspect of your missive. Thanks.


  6. Sadly, I am on the ‘poor’ end of the financial spectrum, but at least I have broadband. It irks me that it’s so expensive compared to the phone ($50 a month- $100 a month with the accompanying cable), but I cannot imagine life without it. It’s gone from a luxury to a utility.

    I am really hoping that WiMax will land in my city, although a couple of years ago, a former legislator in cahoots with Alltel made that nearly impossible by making it -illegal- for WiMax to be utilized in my city. Yes, greed rules all. I plan to grab a legislator’s ear and see what we can do to repeal that law- my city -needs- municipal WiFi if it hopes to be on a level playing field with other cities of its size.

    Countries like South Korea, Japan, and a large swath of Europe are very far ahead of the US in terms of speed, penetration, and price of broadband. We are being left further and further behind while we sink into another Gilded Age with a new set of robber barons using the government as a means to keep us broke and miserable. When did we slip from a first world country to a second? We’re ‘redlining’ ourselves.

  7. Denny and Sunfell,

    Your situations are exactly why this is important. The Internet is not a playground for the rich–it belongs to all of us, and it shouldn’t be distributed simply on the basis of profit.

  8. Martin, while all of these items are important -especially net neutrality and broadband access – I think for me the one that resonates most is Carterfone adaptability for telecom industry. I am sick of having phone after phone that won’t work because I’ve left one carrier for their shitty service and gone hopefully to another for- you guessed it – equally shitty service. Why must I always buy a new #$#@# phone?

    And that stiff contract breaking fee – I wonder if they dropped me from service if I could charge them a stiff fee?

    Oh, and how about repeal of all or most of the telecom act of 1996? I don’t want to let the cable companies off the hook….And I want something besides the “all snoring sleepers” channel when they jack up my cable bill another 5 bucks every quarter….

  9. Just as a practical matter, the U.S. is a much larger country than Japan, South Korea, and the nations of Europe. Thus it takes a correspondingly larger amount of money and/or rollout time for the U.S. to keep up with those nations in terms of access to the latest generations of broadband and cellphone services.

  10. “affordable housing” – the point about forcing this makes me nervous. I’ve seen what happens in South Africa where we have these rules. What they get is worse than nothing.

    Perhaps asymmetric pricing is better. Licensing areas of high value should cost more than areas of low value … just like property. That way some low-cost startup might see a Bottom of the Pyramid opportunity in aggregating services to the poor.

    “Forcing” is never going to work as well as “profiting”.

  11. A very important piece you left out , (though most I had not thought of) would be to put all Government Data available and in a consistent format, and tied to the Google Gapminder Project.

    With all government data (including Budgets) in such a format, then the original intent of the Founders and the institutional intent of creating the data would assure (as least a little) that an aware citizenry could not just have a say, but an intelligent say in what got done and how.

    By playing with the gadget, real facts jump out that might easily go unnoticed, or unknown as most folks eyes would glaze over from the raw data. Imagine what you would see if you could see budget data that way.

  12. as i mentioned in my daily kos diary, one of the most important parts of the internet is the wireless spectrum.

    unfortunately THE BUSH FCC PLANS TO AUCTION OFF THE LIONS SHARE of this valuable infrastructure, mostly to AT&T and Verizon.

    we have to claim our own airwaves for ourselves. and so write your congressman and tell him you do not want to lose even more valuable bandwidth to monopolistic phone companies.

  13. Very helpful piece to those like myself who aren’t technically oriented.

    As I always say, these years may turn out to be the Golden Age of the Internet. I pray that I’m wrong, but we may look back at the freedom with a nostalgia soured by regret at what we let get away.

    I’ll start calling my congresspeople (as I did with Internet radio, which we got a brief stay on).

  14. Hi Martin, et al. – Yep, Hands Off the Internet back with you. So, where’s the beef? or should I say proof of blocking content?

    Of the 10,000 comments received by the FCC about net neutrality, “none…offers any significant empirical evidence to suggest that there currently exists a “market failure” or other systemic problem justifying regulatory intervention in the name of net neutrality.”

  15. Handsoff@14:

    Come on, man, TCS is a known right-wing corporate outlet. Of course they’ll slant the article to make it seem like there’s no problem.

    Here’s the thing–the FCC and FTC want to engage an after-the-fact, rear guard action to address antitrust violations if content is blocked. Fair enough, though I have my doubts about their desire and ability to effectively do so, given Kevin Martin and Deborah Majoras’ excessive friendliness to corporate interests.

    But this is bigger. This is a preemptive strike designed to change the face of the Internet. The NN issue has opened the door to real discussions about improving our Internet capabilities for the nation. What we’re looking for is forward-thinking new ideas, since the current state of market monopoly is clearly not cutting the mustard.

    We’re not waiting for the hurricane to hit to close the barn door anymore.

  16. I just think the FCC, FTC and Department of Justice have valid concerns about how regulation affects the market and the global economy. Innovations have achieved leaps and bounds in just the last couple of years, which is why we want to see everyone proceed with caution. I worry that these regulations would have stifled the success of YouTube, Joost, SecondLife and Netflix, to name just a few examples. They would have eventually come to fruition but it would have taken longer.

  17. I’m sorry, but this is simply ludicrous.

    When you’re talking about Net Neutrality, you’re essentially arguing that we should assure the same kind of structure we’ve had up until now. Somehow you seem to be suggesting that regulations that would make it the way it already is would have stifled innovation, whereas some mythical world where it was … different … would have helped things evolve better … like they actually did?

    In essence, you’re trying to create a perception that is the reverse of reality. You’re trying to portray those who want to change things as championing leaving it alone and you’re trying to paint those who want to prevent pro-corporate changes as purveyors of anti-market change. War is Peace.

    I’m sorry, you’re not being even vaguely coherent, and all this claptrap about “caution” is a ruse designed to make you look reasonable and thoughtful instead of what you really are, which is a paid AT&T sock puppet.

  18. Sam’s absolutely correct. Net Neutrality advocates are all about *preserving the current system*. The big “dumb pipe” that David Isenberg has so aptly described is what has spurred all of this innovation, development, risk-taking, etc.

    The major telecoms and cable companies that fund you–yes, YOU, Mr. Sock Puppet–are antithetical to innovation, unless it brings in profit. Many startups–including those you mention–will not see profit any time soon, but they succeed because they’re using the Internet to create new ideas and new business models. Ma Bell and her spawn have ever only been about preserving the old way of doing things and preventing real innovation–and competition–from disturbing their profit base.

    Try again.