Don't let the future be compressed–fight for a free Internet

By Martin Bosworth

Last week AT&T exec Jim Cicconi did his part to spread FUD by claiming that the Internet will reach the limits of its capacity by 2010, bolstering this doomsday notion with absurd claims that three households could conceivably consume as much bandwidth as the entire existing Internet, or that the entirety of existing networks built today came from private-sector innovation, a claim I’m sure everyone from Vint Cerf to Al Gore can dispute. 😉

Why would Cicconi make such claims? As Ars Technica astutely notes, AT&T has every interest to push bandwith-throttling tactics like those used by Comcast in its blocking of BitTorrent, because like Comcast, AT&T’s supposed high-speed Internet offering relies upon existing network connections, rather than building true fiber-optic cable to the home as Verizon is doing with FiOS–and is prey to the same bandwith restrictions and infrastructure problems as a result, when it’s not literally blowing up in people’s faces.

What Verizon gets–and what AT&T, Comcast, and much of the cable/telecom duopolies fail to understand–is that only with heavy infrastructure investment and network buildouts will we be able to bring real high-speed broadband to the country. Companies that place short-term profits over long-term gains are constantly looking to squeeze every last customer dollar out of existing networks that they can before putting up the money to build out new connections. As a result, “network management”–what you and I call throttling or cutting customers off–is becoming more and more commonplace.

P2P service Vuze has taken the debate a step further, by developing a user plugin that enables them to measure traffic-shaping efforts and analyze the data. Vuze recently published their first report detailing their initial findings, and the conclusions are interesting indeed–Vuze claims that Comcast’s traffic-shaping efforts are widespread, and that they’re hardly the sole offenders.

Of course, it’s important to take Vuze’s findings with a few shakerfuls of salt–they are a P2P service, after all, so it’s in their interests to counteract any network-controlling techniques that would hinder their business. And who’s to say whether or not the app is designed to give back exactly the kind of data they want to publicize? Still, even with the necessary skepticism attached, the central question remains–what if they’re right?

And it’s not just happening to Internet traffic as well. Today a report came out detailing how Comcast, apparently unsatisfied with their reputation as the boogiemen of net neutrality, are compressing high-definition television signals into the bandwith of analog signals, rather than investing in infrastructure upgrades to deliver real HD images to the viewer. The result:

“It kind of looked like they took the standard definition and just blew it up,” said Swanson, a 33-year-old graphic designer and videographer who subscribes to Comcast Corp.’s TV service. “I couldn’t really tell if what I was seeing was really better than what I saw on regular television.”

This sums up so much of how American communications conglomerates have swindled the public over the years by feeding us crappy second-rate service that we pay through the nose for, because there are often no other options for service in our residential area. And don’t think Verizon is a prize just because they get the message about true fiber-to-the-home buildouts. This is the same company that deliberately redirects Internet searches to its own home pages, blocked text messages from NARAL, and (lest we forget) aided and abetted the NSA in spying on American citizens illegally. Wow, that’s real competition there.

This week the Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on no less than the future of the Internet itself, and net neutrality supporter Senator John Kerry has taken the opportunity to solicit feedback from citizens concerned about the unchecked power of corporations to subtly warp and twist Internet access to suit their purposes–or simply to save themselves a few bucks while we fall further and further behind in real broadband development. Don’t forget that many of those bucks will go to buying off Senators and Congressmen to ensure that their agendas are fulfilled on Capitol Hill. If you don’t believe me, ask John “Straight Talk” McCain–his infamous “friend” Vicki Iseman was a hard-charging telecommunications lobbyist:

Iseman, 40, who joined the Arlington-based firm of Alcalde & Fay as a secretary and rose to partner within a few years, often touted her access to the chairman of the Senate commerce committee as she worked on behalf of clients such as Cablevision, EchoStar and Tribune Broadcasting, according to several other lobbyists who spoke on the condition of anonymity…In the years that McCain chaired the commerce committee, Iseman lobbied for Lowell W. “Bud” Paxson, the head of what used to be Paxson Communications, now Ion Media Networks, and was involved in a successful lobbying campaign to persuade McCain and other members of Congress to send letters to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of Paxson.

We’re in the middle of a shadow war over control of the Internet, and the people who matter the most–you and I–need to make our voices heard over the clamor of lobbyists, paid flacks, and pundits. The Internet is a public good that was built with your tax dollars. We need to employ basic principles to build real networks. If we don’t, our Internet future will be compressed, distorted, and not quite like the real thing–too much noise, too little signal, and too much cost for too little benefit.

We can do better than that. We must do better than that.

3 replies »

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  2. Thanks, Martin. Enlist me. Now, if I can only get Verizon to buildout just two miles up the hill to my house …