Saturday, December 17, 2011

Broadband vs. Internet | Doc Searls Weblog

December 9, 2011 in Business, infrastructure, problems, Research, Technology | 20 comments

By design, the Internet supports everything you can do with it. As deployed, it is no more capable than the infrastructures that carry it. Here in the U.S. most of the infrastructures that carry the Internet are owned by telephone and cable companies. Those companies are not only in a position to limit use of the Internet for purposes other than those they favor, but to reduce the Net itself to something less, called “broadband.” In fact, they’ve been working hard on both.

We’ll talk about broadband shortly. But first let’s look at the clobbering the Internet took last week when Verizon, the only large provider of fiber optic Internet connections to homes in the U.S., put an end to expansion of FiOS, their fiber-to-the-home telephone, Internet and cable TV system.

This matters hugely, because the connections with the greatest data-carrying capacities are fiber optic ones. In terms of raw capacity, cable TV and copper telephone lines can’t compete. But then, they don’t need to compete if fiber is off the table as a competitor. That’s what Verizon just did.

In Verizon ends satellite deal, FiOS expansion as it partners with cable, Cecelia Kang reports in the Washington Post that the telco giant “will stop its buildout of FiOS television and Internet services in the next couple years.”

When a company says they plan to stop growing a business, they mean they have given up on it. (Hey, what business, especially a big one, doesn’t want to grow?) It’s also often a sign that the business is for sale, in this case probably to competitors in the cable business. Clues in that direction come from Cecelia’s following sentence: “The moves come as Verizon Wireless forges a new partnership with cable giants to cross-market phone, video, Internet and cellular services.” In that piece, she says “Verizon will pay $3.6 billion to Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks to use a swath of cellphone airwaves that the cable giants own but do not use.”

At the business +/vs. business level, here’s how it sorts out (to me, at least):

1. Verizon was never a cable TV company, and didn’t do a good-enough job at that with FiOS. Straight-up, it should have beaten the crap out of all its cable competitors, just based on superior video and a much higher channel count, thanks to fiber’s much higher data capacity. But Comcast and the others — even Dish Network and DirectTV —were better at the cable game. But Verizon is king of the hill in cellular wireless, with the best coverage and service in most cities. (See the latest Consumer Reports for details.) A lot of what used to be TV is moving to wireless, both over cellular connections and wi-fi. In cellular, Verizon holds aces. 2. Cable has no cellular wireless business, and its auction winnings for spectrum haven’t yet yet paid off. But the spectrum is worth money to rent out, in ways that get cable into the cellular wireless business, so they can now sell “quadruple play” — cable TV, landline phone, Internet (increasingly called “broadband”… more about that below) and cellular. 3. Verizon (along with cable, satellite, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and everybody else) wants to be in the “content distribution” game, which is the future of television, publishing and every other business the Internet has both threatened and transformed. 4. For the most popular technically demanding “content” — video — 100Mbps downstream is enough. You don’t need fiber for that. Cable can do the job well enough. For DVD-quality video (such as Netflix and TV from Google and Apple) it already is. 5. TV is body-snatching personal computing, and it’s good to get in on progress there. Take a look at all the cheap screens you can buy now at Cosco and Staples. Their default dimensions are 1920 x 1080: the native resolution of HDTV. 6. As an informal quid pro quo with the cable companies, Verizon agreed to halt FiOS expansion. Don’t be surprised to see Verizon’s whole FiOS business leased or sold off to a cable competitor in the next few months or years. We’ll all be better off if it gets sold to Google or Apple, but that’s unlikely to happen.

The deal sucks for everything and everybody outside the content distro business, including the rest of the Internet. The sum of the lost or prevented business (and social benefits as well) is incalculable. But nobody seems to be counting. We’re just boiling frogs here.

As of today, your chance of getting fiber to your home is zero, unless you are lucky enough to live in Lafayette, Chatanooga, Pulaski, or one of too-few other places where public and private interests align long enough for fiber service to get built out before brutal opposition by phone and cable companies prevents it — mostly by lobbying up state regulations making build-out difficult or impossible for entities other than phone and cable companies that aren’t going to bother building what they’ve already prevented anyway.

The appetite for fiber is there. We chose to rent our place here near Boston because the street is served by FiOS. (Also RCN, a weaker fiber competitor.) Many businesses see places like the towns listed above as port cities on the Internet’s sea of bits. The speedtest above is typical of what we get from FiOS, which offers speeds up to 150Mbps down and 50Mbps up. Fiber’s native capacity is actually much higher, which is why Chatanooga offers up to 1Gbps, as will Google’s new project in Kansas City. If you live in one of fourteen Utah cities fibered up by Utopia, you have a choice of providers of 100Mbps symmetrical service that will cost you less than what I pay ($70/mo) for my 25Mbps from Verizon.

Last I heard, the fastest cable offering in the upstream direction was 12Mbps. Cox, our cable provider in Santa Barbara, gives us about 25Mbps down, but only 4Mbps up. Last time I talked to them (in June 2009), their plan was to deliver up to 100Mbps down eventually, but still only about 5Mbps up. That’s competitive as long as all you want is “content delivery.” But what about when you want to live “in the cloud,” and all your data is elsewhere? In the long run you’ll need a lot more upstream as well as downstream capacity for that. Internet service optimized for media delivery (where TV especially wants to go) won’t cut it. But then, most people aren’t looking at that. They’re looking at TV on their iPads over broadband, and thinking that’s way cool enough.

So here we are, smack up against what John Perry Barlow warned us about in Death From Above, way back in early 1995. There he wrote, “The cable companies and Baby Bells have a model for developing the next phase of telecom infrastructure which, were it applied to the design of physical superhighways, would have us building them with about five thousand lanes in one direction and one lane in the other.”

Internet speeds over cable aren’t that lopsided, but they are that biased. And the name for that bias is broadband. So let’s look at the difference between the Internet and broadband, because that difference matters.

While the Internet is often called a “network of networks,” what defines the “network of” is a suite of protocols and standards that transcend individual networks and give the whole a single and coherent way of working. Broadband is an old telecommunications term which, as Wikipedia puts it, “became popularized through the 1990s as a vague marketing term for Internet access.”

The Internet’s protocols are NEA:

Nobody owns them.* Everybody can use them, and Anybody can improve them.

Like the periodic table, the Net’s protocols occur in nature — in this case a human one —which is why the Net’s founding capacities can be limitless in size and scope.

For business this means the Net and the Web (which is an application on the Net) are building materials with leverage as boundless as those of hydrogen, copper, oxygen, iron and other real-world elements, but without the scarcity. This is why the Net’s open protocols and standards support $trillions in business without making a dime for themselves, and without promoting the wealth-inducing facts of the matter.

We call these kinds of leverage “because effects“: you make money because of them, rather than with them.

But, since the Internet is not out to make money for itself, it is easily dismissed either as passé, or as having little or no business value. This is what George Colony of Forrester Research did in his recent speech at LeWeb, where he spoke about “the death of the Web,” and why I followed up with Be careful what you call dead. Although I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way, George’s speech was a win for the forces out to subordinate the Internet and the Web to their own parochial businesses and business models.

Right now most of us are unaware that this is going on, and fail to see the risk it presents for everybody who depends on a capacious Internet for future growth and prosperity.

The phone and cable operators are not working alone to limit the Net’s because effects. At this point their allies include lawmakers, regulators, and professional organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

A subtle and pernicious part of that campaign has been an effort to shift the nobody-owns-it Internet conversation to one about “broadband,” which is something the operators own and rent out. Governments are enlisted in this campaign, and now so are the rest of us. (I’ve used the term “broadband” plenty myself, for example, here.) I began to get hip to this trick in the Summer of 2010, at a conference where a spokesman for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) gave a talk about the goodness of broadband without once uttering the word “Internet.” Recently the ITU has been further sanitizing this rhetorical body-snatch by talking up broadband as a “basic human right”.

Bob Frankston (co-father of spreadsheet software and much more) has been on this case at least since 2009, when he wrote The Broadband Internet? One sample: “Today we are used to the ‘broadband’ Internet in which we achieve connectivity despite the services and twisting passages our connections travel.” Bob’s preference is that we look to maximize connectivity, rather than to increase our dependency on carriers with more interest in maintaining telephony and cable TV service and billing models than in maximizing all the other businesses and business models the Net’s founding protocols were built to support.

The division is between what communications wonks crudely characterize as “net-heads” and “bell-heads.” Think of conflict as one betwee any and only. Net-heads want the Net to support anything. Bell-heads want communications systems optimized only for the businesses they prefer — namely, their own — and to avoid even talking about the Internet. (Bell-heads have never been comfortable with the Net, because it was not made to bill. TV and telephony are easy to bill, and so is “content” in general. Thanks to Apple’s and Google’s pioneering work —mostly in league with the operators — so now are apps.)

To see how sharp this distinction is, read The New Digital Divide, by Susan Crawford, an alpha net-head, in The New York Times. Nowhere in the piece does she use the word “broadband.” She does, however, use the word “Internet” twenty-six times. In his letter to the editor responding to Susan’s piece, Verizon CEO and alpha bell-head Ivan B. Seidenberg uses the term “broadband” six times and ”Internet” just once, and only because he can’t say “The 2011 World Economic Forum global survey ranks the United States first in Internet competition” without it. (One wonders if the U.S. will continue to rank first, now that Verizon has given up on FiOS build-out.)

At this point the only entities still trying to bring fiber to your home are Google in Kansas City, brave small operators such as Vermont’s ECFiber.net and some scattered municipalities. Helping where fiber can’t make it (and, in many cases, where broadband can’t either) are Wireless Internet Service Providers, or WISPs. Here’s hoping that these net-headed entities can prove that a wide open and supportive infrastructure for the Internet will do more for business and society than “broadband” alone can provide.

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