An Epistle on the State of Broadband in America

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After reading the "Saving the Net" link via Julian, and after spending the last few weeks in dial-up hell with no end in sight, I can report, without fear of contradiction, this about broadband in America:

1) It sucks.

2) Further, it is likely to go on sucking until such a time as the FCC and all the various state and local regulatory bodies responsible for the suckage are ground into dust. No halfway measure or incremental change is possible. We've been there and tried that, and the regulatory system will always game itself against innovators and consumers.

3) The current politico-regulatory-business model, i.e. fascist plan, for broadband provides nearly zero incentive to support and maintain existing and soon-to-be built infrastructure. The assumption is that once reached and enticed with a long list of "new" features, consumers will be held relatively captive with little ability to move freely between competing, equivalent services. Hence, there is no reason to invest in actually providing, 24/7, the service consumers contract for—they have no where else better to go and the marginal cost of switching is a powerful disincentive to even try.

4) A chunk of the resulting duopoly profits is expected to be routed back to the political class and their favored projects, a shakedown of immense proportions. If subsidies to certain classes of end-users of telecom are deemed absolutely necessary by the State– and they will be—then only the end-users should receive them. Such "phone stamps" would deliver the proscribed service without totally warping the telecom market and propping up decrepit providers, and would advance the principle that consumers should choose their info providers, and not the other way around.

5) Such change, while absolutely essentially to avoid locking much of the U.S. into a needlessly costly and complicated state-of-the-art circa 1933 info-regime, is about as likely as Time Warner finding and fixing the problem on node 61, trunk C41, head 20 before the sun rises on the morrow.

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  1. ‘Saving the Net’ a definite need to read.

    I just left broadband and am back to dialup. I never go online anymore except from work. I’m gonna walk my dogs…

  2. A chunk of the resulting duopoly profits is expected to be routed back to the political class and their favored projects, a shakedown of immense proportions. If subsidies to certain classes of end-users of telecom are deemed absolutely necessary by the State– and they will be — then only the end-users should receive them.

    So then we can fix it, break the chain, with more campaign finance reform?

  3. “A chunk of the resulting duopoly profits is expected to be routed back to the political class and their favored projects,”

    Isn’t this already happening with the taxes added on to your phone bills for digital access or whatever it is? These taxes create a slush fund which is then used for whatever the regulators/politicos want.

  4. This is the best post/thread combination in Hit and Run History.

    It’s like, true too.

  5. A-frickin’-men, Jeff. Thanks.

  6. I began reading the “Saving the Net” article when Julian first linked to it. But so much of it seemed inaccurate to me that I didn’t finish.

    “Both the Net and Linux were created, grew and flourished almost entirely outside the regulatory sphere. They are, in a literal sense, what free markets have done with their freedoms.”
    and
    “The Internet has been blessedly free of regulation for most of its short life.”

    But didn’t the internet begin in the late ’60s, as a creation of the Defense Department? That makes it older than I am and I would hardly characterize the Defense Department as free from regulation. Linux has grown out of Unix, which also began in the late ’60s and while maybe not in a regulatory sphere was certainly proprietary.

    “In the words of David Eisenberg the Internet’s innards purposefully were kept “stupid”. All the intelligence properly belonged at the ends.”

    Perhaps I’ve been kept stupid, but it was my understanding that the most innovative aspect of the IP architecture is that it put intelligence in the network. Old architectures, like the telephone network, work this way: my telephone is connected to a “node” near my house. When I make a call, my node creates a connection to another node that is connected to my callee’s phone. Between those two nodes, there is no monitoring, no error correction. If the line is physically cut, there is no attempt by the network to re-establish a connection. The innards are dumb. The internet, in contrast, is based on routers that have the ability and duty to determine how to route the data. If one path is unavailable, or if an in-use path is disrupted, the routers try another. That’s why data transfer may slow down, but an actual dropped connection is rare.

    “The Net’s end-to-end nature is so severely anathema to cable and telco companies that they have done everything they can to make the Net as controlled and asymmetrical as possible.”

    Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line is one of several DSL technologies. It is the most common because it offers what most customers want- most people are more interested in downloading than uploading. ADSL was an advance because, for a given bit transfer rate, it offers the customer faster downloading rates. Other than that service providers would have no preference for asymmetrical over symmetrical.

    The author then lists a couple of mentalities that provide air cover for the “threats to the marketplace.” One is “the high regard political conservatives hold for successful enterprises.” I don’t consider myself a cultural or a political conservative, but I do have a high regard for successful enterprises. I also don’t see them as a threat to the marketplace.

    “The gradual destruction of the Net is getting political protection by two strong conservative value systems. One values success, and the other values property.”

    “They like to reward strength and achievement. They hate rewarding weakness for the same reason a parent hates rewarding kids’ poor grades.”

    Achievement rewards itself and if a kid is getting poor grades, great care should be taken to help them improve. But no, we shouldn’t reward failure.
    I didn’t get much further than that. Yes, there was a lot in the article that I agree with, but the constant emphasis on conservative vs. liberal, with the curious assertion that liberals (I’m assuming he’s not talking about classic liberalism) are more open to free markets and deregulation than conservatives, dissuaded me from looking at this article for any enlightenment.

  7. http://businessweek.com/magazine/content/03_31/b3844001_mz001.htm


    Verizon plans to roll out fiber-optic connections to every home and business in its 29-state territory over the next 10 to 15 years, a project that might reasonably be compared with the construction of the Roman aqueducts. It will cost $20 billion to $40 billion, depending on how fast equipment prices fall, and allow the lightning-fast transmission of everything from regular old phone service to high-definition TV. No competitor yet dares follow suit, fearing it could be their financial Waterloo. “We’ll watch them closely and go to school on them if they have found something economic,” says Ross Ireland, chief technology officer at SBC Communications (SBC ) Inc., the second-largest phone company after Verizon.

  8. Jeff,

    Your post would have had much more meaning to me — and, I suspect, to others — if you’d outlined exactly what “sucks” about broadband.

    Did the service itself suck — e.g., your connection was unreliable, or you had problems with billing? Your “sucks” is so vague as to render the rest of your post quite mushy.

    I suspect most Americans with a cable modem are quite happy with it. They get the one thing most of them care about: It moves fast. They’re even OK with the monthly cost, or they wouldn’t be paying it. What, specifically, are we not getting that we should be?

    As for the linked article: The author can protest the label all he wants, but he and the Lessig crowd ARE radicals. They can fancy themselves on some new copyright frontier all they want, but they’re wrong, because intellectual property SHOULD be looked at as simple property.

    If I spend my time, energy and resources writing a book, or creating a song, or filming a movie, then it is MINE. The expressions of ideas that come out of my brain don’t belong to the whole human race simply because I’m a human — any more than the house I build with trees on my land belongs to anybody else. The IP-utopia, cult-of-technology schtick is starting to wear really thin.

  9. I count myself fortunate that Verizon does not provide broadband in my area. Instead I have a relatively local ISP who does a far better than average job of providing broadband (DSL) at a price I am willing to pay. They do lease from Verizon, and therein lies the issue. Verizon does not want them as competitors, while still not wanting to provide the service in my market.

    Verizon delays, ignores, and generally is unhelpful – not unlike their telephone system brothers and sisters here in Virginia. Verizon was bad back when they were the C&P Telephone Company of Virginia and name changes plus growth have not helped.

    What issue is it that is your problem with broadband? Good suppliers exist in many areas.

  10. jeff taylor, i think the world is begging to know what you don’t like about broadband….

  11. The broadband situation–especially the hell that is often involved in getting DSL–is pretty bad, but am I to understand that getting rid of the sloppy government regulations that attempt to force open access to phone lines and force cable and phone companies to roll out DSL to rural areas in favor of no regulation at all will make things somehow better?

    Without government intervention, especially at the local and state level, what you’d have is practically no broadband anywhere at all. DSL and cable modem service would be limited to the neighborhoods where low-hanging fruit are: Manhattan below 96th St., Brooklyn’s Hipster Belt, Silicon Valley, the nicer gated communities in Northern Virginia and so on.

    I guess if the US underwent some kind of anarcho-capitalist revolution and anyone could string fiber and plop down microwave towers wherever they damn well pleased as long as they had bigger guns than the people whose homes they’re running the cable through, maybe we’d see a thousand (well-armed) mom-and-pop broadband initiatives bloom, but as long as stringing fiber and launching satellites and putting routers and repeaters within two miles of every customer remains wildly expensive and a losing proposition in poor and rural areas, the only thing that has made broadband coverage as widespread as it is now is government “meddling”.

    The DSL nightmare would best be relieved by more government regulation–like, say, the nationalization of local phone lines. If the local grids–and not the services delivered over them–were public property like, say, sewers and drinking water conduits, then the worst part of the DSL nightmare (the obstructionist games RBOCs play to try to make it difficult to obrain 3rd-party DSL service rather then their own) would fix that nicely.

    With the ongoing migration away from POTS to wireless and voice-over-IP for actual phone service, maybe it’s time the basic wiring that carries megabit IP and voice calls be turned into a public utility.

    If it weren’t for New Deal-era initiatives like the TVA, do you really think poor areas in rural America would have access to electricity right now?

    P.S., others have said it already, but far be it from me not to chime in: until the mid 1990s, the Internet was a government animal–built, funded and driven overwhelmingly by the DoD and state universities, and the major “private” ISPs of the early days, like BBN and UUNet, were about as independent of government largesse as General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas are. Which is to say not at all.

    And Linux? Well, Unix started as a government-funded effort by AT+T and was shared with major public universities. The free BSD (Berkeley Standard Distribution) Unixes grew out of the branch of Unix maintained at, yes, good ol’ lefty gummint research giant UC Berkeley. The GNU project, the Mosaic web browser (which is the direct ancestor of both Netscape and Internet Explorer) and the NCSA web server (from which Apache was derived)? The products of grant-funded projects at universities, one and all. Take away all of that, and Linux is nothing more than a boot-up screen and some device drivers, and from what I recall from my history books, Mr. Torvalds got things rolling from a computer lab at his Finnish state university, thanks. Hell, Yahoo and Lycos both started as university portal and search engine projetcs.

    What was the private sector up to around the time all of this was bursting out of universities and gummint labs? Microsoft was busy working on the original MSN, a proprietary online service that organized everything in an endless nest of folders like a hard drive and posted content as Word files. Ziff-Davis and the Washington Post were launching Interchange, a proprietary online service that was like Sears and IBM’s Prodigy but with smaller text. Compuserve was in its 15th year of offering virtually unchanged online shopping, online chat, and text message boards and e-mail. At some point around 1982, they’d added lowercase and pretty much stopped innovating there.

    Plenty of innovation comes from the private sector, but trying to solve the internet’s problems by placing simplistic faith in the market alone is myopia of the sort unique to people whose politics boil down to a glib five-word tagline.

  12. Jeff, if you believe that broadband sucks, shouldn’t it be that instead of “hell,” you spent the last few weeks in 56K nirvana with no end in sight, right?

    Just like dog-lover Judson in the first post, surely, if high speed connections “suck,” then dial-up is heaven, isn’t it?

  13. We now temporarily take control of your weblog to urge people to get involved in this civil disobedience.

    How to force congress to pass a prescription drug benefit under Medicare Part B

    Now you have the opportunity to repeal HR 1/ S 1 the Republican prescription drug plan and replace it with a prescription drug benefit under Medicare Part B

    Call Eckerd Pharmacy Corporate Headquarters at 1-800-325-3737 and tell them unless they can get the congress to pass
    a prescription drug benefit under Medicare part B covering 80 percent of medication with no extra premium, no extra deductibles, no means test, no coverage gaps, you will not buy from them and you will tell your friends also not to buy from them.

    Call CVS Pharmacy Corporate headquarters at 888 607-4287
    and tell them unless they can get the congress to pass a prescription drug benefit under Medicare part B covering 80 percent of medication with no extra premium, no extra deductibles, no means test, no coverage gaps, you will not buy from them and you will tell your friends also not to buy from them.

    Call Walgreens Pharmacy Corporate headquarters at 888 289 2273 and tell them unless they can get the congress to pass a prescription drug benefit under Medicare part B covering 80 percent of medication with no extra premium, no extra deductibles, no means test, no coverage gaps, you will not buy from them and you will tell your friends also not to buy from them.

    Also read and sign the petition at
    http://www.boycott-republicans.com

    which covers a comprehensive progressive agenda.

    How to stop the Republican initiated governor recall.

    Hello

    Several Republicans will run for Governor of California in a recall election. They have every right to run for governor.

    Because the Republicans have decided to do this recall action I have a right to decide not to buy a car alarm called the Viper from Directed Electronics, a company that one of the candidates Darrell Issa works for.

    I have a right to tell others not to buy products from Directed Electronics for this reason and call them at 1 800 876 0800 and demand that they get every Republican candidate to withdraw or they will lose alot of sales. So if you want to stop the Republicans from running, call Directed electronics and call car alarm dealers that sell the Viper and let the civil disobedience begin.

    Also read and sign the petition at
    http://www.boycott-republicans.com

    which covers a comprehensive progressive agenda.

  14. Koppelman, do you get a government paycheck by any chance? Is that how you support yourself? Do you have a cushy government job somewhere?

    Sure sounds like it.

    You ask, “If it weren’t for New Deal-era initiatives like the TVA, do you really think poor areas in rural America would have access to electricity right now?”

    You bet your gubmint grant they would. What ? you think if gubmint doesn’t do it, it won’t get done? You don’t think people are inventive enough to come up with their own solutions? Necessity is still the mother of invention. Always has been.

    Give folks some credit. Give private initiatives the elbowroom they need. Give human ingenuity the breathing room it requires (by getting the gubmint scene hogger out of the way) and you’ll be surprised at the many magical things folks can come up with on their own.

    Gubmint scene hogging only serves to take such incentives away.

  15. Color me as having a senior moment many years early, but I don’t get your manifesto point 4. At first it seems like you’re upholding the current system: 911 charges are billed to everybody, and, well, 911 users consume them. Or rural telephone charges are charged to everybody and I, being in the city, don’t use them.

    Did you mean the end users who benefit from a service should be the ones to pay? IE, rates should be higher in rural America and there should be a 911 toll charge? While I think the former is a very good idea, I didn’t get that from reading your post.

    As far as I can see, cable modems suck a little bit because they have put unreasonable restrictions on them (no servers of any kind and forbidding local networks to be connected to the net), but DSL sucks a lot, usually in trying to get it set up and serviced because the Bell monopolies do a good job of providing service sucky enough to dissuade people from using competing DSL providers but without getting in trouble with regulatory authorities, and then setting up the same unreasonable restrictions on their own network as cable modems.

    In each case, true competition (why must there only be one ISP for a cable modem provider? and why was making it only one, but not the cable company thought an improvement? My service really started sucking with that “reform”, it was great before) would fix their red wagon.

  16. Actually, I’m solidly private sector. Small business at that. Believe it or not, that doesn’t automatically make me a misanthrope and tax protestor. But anyhow.

    Right now, hard-wired telecommunications services in private homes have to come from one of three places: the local phone monopoly, the local cable TV monopoly or the local electric monopoly. Those are the three entities that have wires running into people’s homes and under the streets and along the allocated rights-of-way.

    At this point in the lecture, someone who sees the world in black and white and five-word reductive philosophies raises her/his hand and says something about those being gummint monopolies, and gawrsh, if the free market were just allowed to function we’d have a choice of 6 cable companies and 4325 local phone companies and any number of companies jostling to wire us up for electricity. Except we wouldn’t. Many communities would have none, or they’d be busy bartering potatoes for a share in the output from the communal windmill.

    Those monopolies on power grids, phone wires and TV cable are usually granted for the sole reason that a monopoly on one of those services in a given subdivision, high-rise building or town is a necessary stimulus to make a company want to lay all that wire at all. In big cities it’s a bit different in that monopolies are granted in part because nobody wants to dig up the streets more than once every half century, but out in the ‘burbs and rural areas, part of getting a new development built is granting the concessions to get utilities run out to it.

    Doubtless we’re not many years from having true wireless broadband with sufficiently low latency to push around cable-modem volumes data and video without wires, and then we’ll be able to say to hell with all that silly fiber and copper running under suburban streets. Until then, the Platonic ideal of the perfect market will continue to bump up against that messy thing called keeping the world functioning.

    You know, though: maybe outlawing government-granted utility monopilies might do some good now that I think about it. It would bring new suburban sprawl development to a near-standstill. Who would want to build a bunch of new townhomes in the middle of nowhere if they also had to build utilities for them (and arrange for waste disposal if they elected not to set aside half the available land for wind and solar farms) or negotiate rights-of-way with the hundreds of property owners between them and the nearest power substation?

  17. Linux has grown out of Unix, which also began in the late ’60s and while maybe not in a regulatory sphere was certainly proprietary.

    Proprietary but not saleable. IIRC, Unix was developed at AT&T as part of a government project. For that, AT&T could not sell Unix to others but could use it internally which it did. AT&T licensed usage to colleges where it became a mainstay of CompSci. Somewhat private and somewhat public from the beginning.

  18. Paris will be completely WiFi within a year or so. Is there a comparable effort in the US?

  19. God we’re lost in the wind tunnel again.

    I wish some of you would write you dissertations somewhere else.

  20. “In an unprecedented move, Verizon is blanketing Manhattan with more than 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots that will let any broadband subscriber near a Verizon telephone booth use a laptop to wirelessly tap the Net for the latest news, sports scores, or weather report. If the rollout goes well, Verizon will duplicate this wireless grid in other major cities. Next up: third-generation wireless service, known as 3G, which lets customers make speedy Net connections from their mobile phones. Verizon will begin to deploy 3G in September, at least three months before any of its major competitors.”

  21. Warped Hair-Piece:

    I should’ve stopped to make clear that reading “Saving” did not imply a full embrace of it. The theme is what set me off, the catalog of questionable assertations you ably cite just rolled off me like so much of the writing which attempts to fuse politics and tech. As a result, I’ve set the bar so low just a vague call to go out and do something wins me over. And for the record, much of the conservative heartburn evinced over media concentration is motivated by the recognition that those dollars will help fund not-conservative social causes and candidates. Doc doesn’t seem to get that.

  22. Sandy:

    What government moves led your cable company to put those speed caps on service? Last I heard, cable modem service speed caps were a step taken by the cable companies to lower customer expectations so the cable company wouldn’t have to add capacity when the uncapped speeds would inevitably drop after wider adoption. By imposing a speed cap, the cable company avoids being in the sticky position of explaining to people why service is slow in subscriber-dense neighborhood A and fast in subscriber-sparse Neighborhod B. Instead, everybody’s slow and the cable company gets to buy snakeskin boots for its middle managers and doesn’t have to add another switched hub to your neighborhood to speed things back up.

    You’re barking up the wrong tree.

    Now, back to the strident call for deregulation. Your local RBOC, the telco that does everything it can to make it difficult for you to get DSL service from someone other than themselves, would love to get into the cable TV business in your area. As the land-line phone monopoly in your area, they have the right to run wire too. But if cable companies couldn’t be assured of a monopoly per neighborhood or large building, do you think any company would have wired your neighborhood for cable TV at all?

    Conversely, the cable TV companies would love to provide your land-line phone service. But again, this state of affairs only exists because both companies got exclusive rights to run their particular kinds of wiring in the first place. Without those monopoly grants, very few neighborhoods are rational investments for companies that have to wire them up to take on customers there. I’d say the government regulatory problem here is that these monopolies are granted essentially in perpetuity, and when a town decides to switch cable providers upon a contract expiration, they grant a monopoly to the next company even though the big jobs–the wiring and the buildout of switching centers–were finished years before and the monopolist would have to do a bad job indeed going forward to lose many customers to the new entrants. I’d like to see phone and cable (and other utility) companies’ monopoly status expire, and for the market to be opened to competition after some fixed period based on how long it takes the utility to turn a healthy profit on its initial capital investment. 10 years? 20? That would be up to negotiations at the local level. After the expiration, let the telco offer cable TV, let the cable company offer phone service, and let both offer electricity or whatever.

    Your homework: Go buy a chunk of vacant unincorporated land 15 miles west of fast-growing Vero Beach, Florida. Now call up Comcast, Bellsouth and FPL and tell them all that they and any other company that wants to do so will be allowed to provide electricity and phone service and cable TV–not just one apiece–to everyone who buys one of the shoddy beige townhouses you’re building. See how many takers you get.

  23. Sorry, big guy, but you’ve got a bigger problem. You’re hoping to get blazingly fast service and the right to run your own servers for your $50/month from the wrong kind of broadband technology. What you really want is DSL, not cable.

    With DSL, your bandwidth is your bandwidth in that you can be alocated your bandwidth and the number of subscribers on your block and the traffic they’re generating doesn’t affect you much. The bottleneck would be at the central office.

    With cable modem service, it works differently. You’re essentially sitting on a hub with your neighbors, sharing one chunk of bandwidth with them crudely. This is why it’s tougher to do Windows file sharing via many cable modem ISPs; a lot of them filter such traffic so that you can’t easily poke around in your neighbors’ poorly secured files and print on their printers. The end result is that if you run a server or decide to start a web reality show and stream 4 channels of broadband video over an uncapped cable modem connection, you’re stomping on your neighbors’ bandwidth too. The capping, besides keeping expectations in check, is also a crude way to set aside guaranteeed minimum bandwidth for each customer.

    Your brief encounter with T3-speed unrestricted cable modem goodness was probably due to (1) very few fellow customers to interfere with when you saturated the connection and (2) someone not too bright running things.

    I’ve heard about the bad broadband situation in Northern Va. Most towns these days write deadlines and milestones for service deployments into their contracts with cable companies. Just because your local governement was either more corrupt or more inept than even North Jersey or South Florida when the local cable contracts were negotiated, that doesn’t mean scrapping the one incentive that gets wired broadband anywhere is a good idea.

    As for upgrading phone service to support DSL, I reckon that’s going to get tougher, not easier. Wired telephone service is on the cusp of a major decline. With cable modem service (even capped) faster than most residential DSL, a growing minority of people opting to drop their land lines entirely in favor of their cellphones, and the trickle-down of Internet telephony taking hold, upgrading thin copper in areas that already have enough working POTS service is starting to look like a risky investment even for a monopoly RBOC. Maybe if you feel strongly enough about this, you should be pushing a ballot initiative to place a special assessment on the neighborhoods in question to pay for wiring that might never pay for itself from the telco’s standpoint.

    As it is, I recently moved to a dense, economically sound neighborhood adjacent to a thriving business and hotel strip, and though I can get cable modem service, it’s possible I may never be able to get DSL here. The RBOC upgraded phone service using fiber, not copper, from the central office to my block. When phone service upgrades come to your area, they might leapfrog right past the 1933 technology that makes DSL possible and stick you with phone wiring that will be able to provide even faster speeds than your mourned uncapped cable modem. But it might be a few more years after that until the consumer equipment to give you that service at home is available.

  24. I wish some of you would write you dissertations somewhere else.

    OK, attention, everybody: Keep your stuff in bite-sized nuggets so “Douglas Fletcher” gets what he needs out of a discussion he hasn’t contributed to.

  25. Changed my mind about Koppelman.

    The man makes some very rational points after all (dissertations notwithstanding.) I guess certain things just have to turn out the way they do, because of the nature of the (marketplace) beast. And some entity will have to play referee, right S.M.?

    Good job. You’re redeemed. (And apologies for misjudging your views.)

  26. “Further, it is likely to go on sucking until such a time as the FCC and all the various state and local regulatory bodies responsible for the suckage are ground into dust.” -JAT, in the thread’s parent post

    You could (and elsewhere on Hit&Run, others do) say much the same thing about the state of broadcasting. Suckity suck suck sucka sucka suck. FCC delenda est.

    On the other hand, I have to admit that government was actually good for something in my own experience. To wit: I have DSL with SBC (formerly Pac Bell), as an adjunct to my home landline telephone. At one point in the past, they were not allowing email to pass between my work email server and my home email account. Apparently, someone had identified our domain at work as one that could conceivably support spam parasites, anonymous remailing, etc. So we got on a spam blacklist, to which PacBell at one point decided to subscribe. This, despite the utter lack of demonstration that our domain had ever been used for such a thing or was in danger of being so used. I complained to PacBell until I was blue in the face, and kept getting voice mail hell and the royal runaround whenever I actually got to speak with a real person. Weeks went by, with me being unable to forward material to my own home email address from work (though I could send things from home to work).

    Finally, I got an idea. I decided to complain to the billing department that I was being charged for service that I reasonably expected to receive and was being denied by Pac Bell through no fault of my own, simply because of someone’s arbitrary decision to put our IP on a blacklist and PacBell’s arbitrary decision to respect that designation. As I expected, that didn’t get very far, but my next step was to go to the California Public Utilities Commission. They can’t and won’t twist arms on behalf of internet customers, but they will intervene in billing disputes with one’s telephone company. As my internet came from my telephone company and was billed by my telephone company, they had an angle in my case, which they wouldn’t necessarily have had if my service came from Comcast or Earthlink, for example. I lodged my protest with the PUC (expedited, I might add, by careful records I had kept of all communications with PacBell), then informed PacBell billing of my formal protest, which again, didn’t seem to cut any ice with with them — at first.

    A few days later, however, I got an extremely contrite call from a PacBell representative, who informed me that my email problems had been resolved, I was getting a billing credit for my missed email, and, oh yes, were my shoes in need of shining? The difference in attitude and responsiveness was literally thrilling.

    I am thinking that perhaps I wasn’t the only one who stumbled onto that successful strategy, because in recent months, PacBell (now just “SBC”) turned its internet services (email, personal webpage hosting, etc.) over to Yahoo. I can’t help but feel that this may somehow be a dodge so that they can avoid the “billing dispute” exposure — so that they can legally pass the buck for problems like mine along to Yahoo, which is beyond the reach of the PUC.

    I would have preferred a totally free-market solution. For instance, I would have loved to be able to change my service to a more attractive provider as I would flip a switch. Unfortunately, if one can find a better provider (not easy to do, for the suckage reasons already explained by JAT and others here) one must still transfer one’s email and start using a new address; same for the webpages, etc. This is disruptive. Until the customer can keep email addresses and webpage URLs for life, regardless of how often he switches providers, we really won’t have a free market in internet services that meets the most crucial needs of a good many customers. Also, there are still many barriers to entry that are fully or partially erected on account of laws and government regulation. So, I don’t have a problem with calling the cops if that evens the playing field in my showdown with the huge telephone company. I’m just worried that such an option may disappear, long before the true free market arrives. In the interim, we’d definitely be at the mercy of the internet providers, as my experience more than adequately proved to me.

    Incidentally, as much as I detest the telephone company, let me also give it props for actually making DSL available in my area, some years after the cable company had begun to tempt us with promises of “someday,” but many years before the cable company actually began to take steps to make good on their promises. When I moved to my current residence, several years ago, my cable provider was United Artists Cable. They became AT&T Broadband, and finally Comcast. I asked each of the successive companies at least once a year, whether cable broadband was coming to Santa Cruz (a minor center of high tech development as satellite and bedroom community to San Jose and the Silicon Valley). Every time the answer was “we’re working on it…real soon now.” As I write this, the Comcast website informs me that cable broadband may STILL not be available at my location. I’m glad I quit waiting for them and decided to bite the bullet with PacBell a couple of years back. It’s been a bumpy ride, but at least I’ve been riding this whole time, instead of meekly waiting for the long-promised bus.

  27. Whilst I nod in the direction of Mr. Bennett’s thoroughness and insistence on precision, the reality remains that DSL is more amenable to offering services that include letting customers run servers out of their homes, and that this difference stems from the fact that DSL bandwidth allocations can be and are granular per customer and cable modem bandwidth allocations are coarser, with each “slice” shared between multiple customers.

    And as another person who’s had eminently portable e-mail addresses for many years now (all it takes these days is about $18 a year to obtain a domain from a registrar that throws in DNS and forwarding services), it’s only fair to point out that the largest single consumer ISP, AOL, makes it exceedingly difficult to have that portable e-mail. Last time I checked, they blocked customers’ access to any and all SMTP servers. Their rival Earthlink, for their part, allows customers access to exactly one SMTP server: theirs, which customers can’t access when they’re connected to the internet in some other way. Sending e-mail using standard mail software from either of these services is far from straightforward if you also connect through other means at times.

    Of course, with AOL now losing hundreds of thousands of customers quarterly, the marketplace will take care of these irritants one way or another in the long run, even if registering a domain and routing your e-mail through remains daunting for many.

  28. >>>The Urban Legends keep rolling in: Until the customer can keep email addresses and webpage URLs for life, regardless of how often he switches providers, we really won’t have a free market in internet services that meets the most crucial needs of a good many customers.

    We’ve only had the ability to keep e-mail and web page addresses for life for as long as we’ve had the Internet. …

    This discussion would be lot more interesting if those taking part in it knew something about the basics of Internet architecture that didn’t come from Larry Lessig and Doc Searls.

  29. SM:

    I’m barking up the right tree.

    While wiring monopolies might have been a good idea during buildout (this is an extremely debatable point, see the vast libertarian and economic literature on the subject for why), as you point out, holding on to it in perpetuity is not wiring up your Florida property example for broadband.

    Actually, that’s not quite true. An extremely limited form of broadband is available almost anywhere, and it’s one that received government subsidies but never had a government monopoly on the telco part of the service (post AT&T breakup): satellite broadband.

    But apart from that aside, yes, everybody has monopolies on their wires. Now, you ask, how has the government hurt me?

    As I said before, the service used to be great. That all changed when Congress passed a bizarre law meant to inspire competition but apparently was the Telco Preservation Act: the cable company could not own the internet service they provided. However, only one company was allowed to provide it for each local cable monopoly, just not the cable monopoly themselves.

    That flies in the face of the logic you’ve been ascribing to the monopoly structure. This created a similar situation to the one in DSL, where the cable monopoly gets nothing out of the internet business, and so is slow to respond when problems affecting that service occur.

    The caps all came as this bizarre new structure tried to make money and recoup the conversion costs. It was not to avoid putting in new infrastructure, it was to generate additional revenue by charging for tiered service, especially since they couldn’t guarantee any quality of the cable equipment (upgrading the back-end equipment is trivial and is done all the time by ISPs, so that argument doesn’t wash). However, nobody with a competing plan could come in and use the same cable infrastructure to provide service.

    So now there’s the worst of both worlds: no incentive for the cable monopoly to expand or improve service, as they see no incremental profit, and no competition on the leased service by the ISP. You’ll note that the vast, fuzzy bunny government-coddled rollout of cable modem service has essentially halted–cable systems that needed to be upgraded are only being upgraded to provide digital cable service, not as a result of upgrading for internet service capability.

    The telco monopoly, on the other hand, was supposed to roll out broadband to rural areas with its filthy government-protected lucre. Um. Well, that’s worked out well, hasn’t it? Gated communities in NoVA can’t get such service–as the necessary upgrdes haven’t been made despite said promises by the local monopolies.

    Go ahead, you move to Sterling, VA, near AOL headquarters and near the hub for the Internet for the Eastern US, and try to get broadband. The cable system hasn’t been upgraded, and it won’t be any time soon. The telco won’t provide DSL, either, as they haven’t upgraded the infrastructure.

    Contrast this with the millions of miles of dark trunk fiber just lying around because companies, despite your predictions, were hoping for a break on the local monopolies to be able to run wire to businesses (and who’s to say they couldn’t get a contract for x number of years to run fiber to a given neighborhood or building exclusively? Coke and Pepsi do this with vending machines all the time and don’t have the governent enforcing it) and neighborhoods. The capacity is there–we could have much higher-speed traffic in the cities, and more broadband could get to suburban and rural areas. No, not all rural areas would be covered, but how is that a change from the current situation?

    I suspect part of the problem is that you believed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was in fact deregulation. To the contrary, it was re-regulation. Had it been deregulation, we wouldn’t be in this mess. A little competition never hurt anybody, except government-protected monopolies that you admit have no continued reason to exist.

  30. S. M. Koppelman:

    Many years ago, in my decidedly un-gated community in NoVA, my cable company, prior to government “competition” intervention, provided kick-ass cable modem service. 10 Megabit upload/download, and run any server, service, or network you like. Then the government helped me.

    Now, I get limited 512K/128K, am not allowed a network, and I can’t even run a test server for my own projects for fear it will be decided that I’m running a public server and my connection shut off.

    Thanks for your help, S. M. Can you go help somebody else from now on? I’m having difficulty sitting properly.

    Thanks.

  31. “The Internet …was designed by high priests of computer science for their own highfallutin purposes. Don’t blame SBC for this – they weren’t even in the room.”

    Well, if they weren’t in the room, why then are they participating in “internet purposes?” To please customers in Voice-Communication Land?

    Maybe so, but then such obeisance is, at best, a temporary gesture — for I can easily foresee wireless becoming the ubiquitous wave of the future, leaving SBC’s 1933 technology in the dust anyway.

  32. Wait- you guys pay for broadband? Get a wireless card and a tin can.
    Bravo to Richard Bennet- “Aol lost 900,000 customers…the market works.”
    The internet is a *relatively* unregulated market ( compared to most) and trying to regultate it any more will weaken it, I agree. But it is structured to be very difficult to control. It’s like Bruce Lee said about fighting well: Try to be like Water”. The internet is like water- if you try to fight it, it goes around you (Napster becomes Kazaa, etc.) It is changing the way we think about copyright, property, ownership, etc., and allows more market efficiency that was ever possible before, due to its communication and speed advances.
    Just my take, I could be wrong.

  33. Nice, Rex! “The internet is like water- if you try to fight it, it goes around you.”

    I like it. So can we then have personal ECONOMY be like water, too? Or can we make EDUCATION be like water, as well? Or how about FREEDOM? Couldn’t it be water-like itself?

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