April 27, 2006

Non Neutral Net Nip

Yesterday by allowing telecoms to tier content, Congress voted to turn the clock back to 1993 when News Corp, Time Warner, John Malone, and Al Gore believed that all the worlds information should flow through closed-platform set-top boxes, 500 channels of bandwidth carefully metered out to elite media tycoons according to the size of their yachts. (Here, as always, I am speaking for myself, not my employer.)

Apparently some people have been holding on for a decade for a chance to pave over the Internet with an Information Superhighway. How would it be different?

How to Pave over the Internet

It is not hard to pave over the Internet. The Internet is a big incubator that needs many things to work well.

For example, it depends on electricity. All those spinning hard drives really suck down the power, so I am told. What if electric companies tiered your kilowatts depending on the kind of content you hosted on your servers? After all, it was Enron that explained in 1999 that its energy skills "are proving to be equally valuable in other businesss." Instead of letting people pick their own favorite websites, we would leave programming decisions to smart Enron traders who are always working hard in our best interest.

Thank goodness the power utilities are prevented from controlling the businesses they supply. Yet now telecom companies want to stick their noses in: they want to meter out bandwidth depending on which video content they like best. And Congress seems to think that is a terrific idea. Telecoms argue that is how it should work because that is how cable TV works today. But then should we also encourage Union Pacific and Burlington Northern to decide which coal, cars, DVDs, and fall fashions people should ship over railcars? Perhaps we should resurrect Standard Oil.

The limited-menu model in cable TV is the wrong model for rail. It is the wrong model for power. It is the wrong model for TV itself. And it is certainly the wrong model for the Internet.

Blair Levin summarizes the policy conflict between the edge and the center of the network here. He is quoted in Businessweek today:

Right now, I would never invest in a business model that depended on protection from Net neutrality.

In other words, with the non-neutral telecom bill weaving its way through Congress, Levin would not invest in Microsoft, Amazon, Ebay, Google, Yahoo or the rest of Silicon Valley. Where should we bet now? It is time to put your money on the pipes - AT+T, Verizon, and Comcast. Remember Global Crossing? These are the hugely dynamic companies that want nothing more than to pave the information superhighway.

And what a wonderful superhighway they will build!

Dreaming of an Information Superhighway

The idea of handing control of the city over to the road builders it not a new idea. But it is not a good one.

Who can predict what a telecom Internet will look like? For insight, I like to turn to Chris Green's 1994 usenet post:

Q: What is the Information Superhighway?

A: It's just like the internet, except:

  • it's a lot more expensive.
  • you can't post and there's no killfile.
  • there's no alt.sex.* or alt.drugs
  • rec.humor.funny has a laugh track.
  • there's a commercial break every 10 minutes.
  • everything is formatted to 40 columns for TV's.
  • the free software costs you $2.00/megabyte to ftp, more for long distance.

A: It's just like cable TV, except:

  • it's a lot more expensive.
  • the picture isn't as good.
  • there's 500 channels of Pay-per-View and home-shopping.
  • you can watch any episode of Gilligan's Island or any Al Gore speech for only $2.00.
  • no public access channels.
  • there's a commercial break every 10 minutes.

A: It's just like renting videos, except:

  • it's a lot more expensive.
  • there's only 1/100th as many to choose from.
  • no porno.
  • there's no pause, fast-forward, or rewind, and it costs you another $3.95 if you want to watch twice.
  • there's a commercial break every 10 minutes.

A: It's just like the telephone, except:

  • it's a lot more expensive.
  • there's no one to talk to.
  • there's a commercial break every 10 minutes.
  • every number is a toll call.

rec.humor.funny is the best source for policy wisdom.

Posted by David at April 27, 2006 11:30 AM
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