President Barack Obama's commitment to improve information infrastructure sounds interesting. I do wonder if the ideals have something to do with reality, and ultimately Congress will be responsible for making it work.
Too often, government has tried to expand Internet access by giving money to massive phone and cable companies, only to see promises broken, tax dollars squandered, and benefits lost. As a result, Americans now face few market choices, and pay high prices for speeds that are far too slow.
In fact since 1996 the Universal Service Fund has already existed, but we have not seen significant improvements in broadband accessibility that can be directly attributed to that. Rather, the old incumbents roll it out in lucrative markets and are paid back nicely for their investment, but it's not "universal" by any means.
I have personally had broadband at my house since 1997. (I live in the central core of the 5th largest city in the USA, so I'm lucky in that it has existed so long for me.) All in all it's wonderful, and I feel sorry for people who simply cannot get it at all. But what do I not like about it?
- I pay more than $90 per month for internet plus basic analog cable. Compared to the rest of the world (and especially Japan) this is scandalous. The price has gradually gone up over the last 12 years, not down as it naturally should have.
- I have never been able to get DSL in my neighborhood. So Cox Cable effectively has a monopoly on broadband, because Qwest refuses to upgrade their outdated digital lines with something that is DSL-capable. Let alone fiber! That's what we should have had by now.
- Internet service, the cable itself, and the TV service are all intertwined. If I drop the basic cable service, my internet bill will go up, so there is not a lot of savings to be had. And unlike the situation on DSL, I have no choice of Internet service provider.
- Cox blocks some ports, making it impossible to run a web server at home. So I have to pay extra for web hosting, too. I think that hosting home pages is a matter of freedom of speech, and their approach to preventing spam, worms, viruses etc. should not be so heavy-handed as to block so many things that one might want to do, except for reading what others have written. (And for me personally, spam filtering at gmail.com has gotten so good that I effectively don't see spam anymore. That is enough all by itself, without any laws or any efforts on the part of Cox to "protect" me from this "terrible plague" which never really was so terrible, actually.)
- As much as I pay, Cox does not allow me to share my bandwidth with the neighborhood. I can very easily do that wirelessly, and fon.com was set up to allow people to work together to deploy neighborhood networks. But the broadband providers consider that sort of thing a loss of revenue, so we are not seeing wireless neighborhood networks on a large scale, even though that would be so easy and cheap and would be a volunteer effort, requiring no funding whatsoever and providing free Internet service to the people who cannot afford it. A mere few sentences of encouragement from someone in a high position would be enough to jump-start this sort of effort, just like the Victory Gardens and bond drives of decades gone by. Those who have should be free to share with those who do not, without artificial obstacles.
- If I did share my bandwidth with the neighborhood, besides impacting Cox's bottom line, I have to fear that if a neighbor downloads some child porn or something else illegal, I could be held responsible for it.
But there is no competition so Cox gets away with doing what they like. And the law encourages their greed, while at the same time encouraging people to protect themselves from liability rather than to be good neighbors and share the natural cornucopia of abundance that the Internet represents.
The natural course of progress from here is towards wireless Internet access. We have seen some preliminary good results with WiMax in some cities. That does not mean that I wish the government would give a handout to any company that is willing to invest in it though, because other technologies are on the horizon and it would be foolish to invest in something that may ultimately turn out to be immature. I think we can expect the free market to choose the best technology, but maybe some of the startups need a bit of protection and nurturing to compete with their established rivals.
It makes me very angry that my contribution to the Universal Service Fund has apparently done nothing at all. I would prefer that any future mandates placed upon the telecom companies take that into account: the mandates should simply assume that this money has been sitting there ever since, and they should be made to either spend it on the kinds of infrastructure that the country actually needs, or give it back to the Treasury. In particular, the telecoms and cable companies should be strongly encouraged to actually build out the fiber networks that have been promised for so long and so often. That is their strength. The wireless future will probably belong to younger, more agile companies anyway.
Congress must not write another blank check to these same corporations. They have no trouble making money. What is important is the regulations to
- keep the playing field fair,
- to keep the network access neutral and unfiltered (that means all ports should be open)
- to spread the frontiers of the network further with each passing year, and
- to make it clear that the liability for downloading illegal content rests SOLELY with the person sitting in front of his own computer and viewing that content - NOT with anyone else who may inadvertently have been involved, without knowledge or consent of those activities.
None of this really needs to cost much from the public funds. They've been sucking on the Universal Service Fund for long enough already.
More about that
How much money are we talking about? 30 or 50 or 200 billion total, or about 7 billion per year, depending on what time period you are looking at and who's counting, apparently. Seems like a lot, anyway. But Obama plans to spend "only" 6 billion this year for broadband in rural areas. How much you want to bet that will have some sort of effect? About all we can be sure of is that it will add another drop to the ever-heavier bucket of national debt that we are collectively carrying.