Another round of praise for the City of Pasadena for issuing an RFP for a municipal wireless network. This is an important step in the right direction for Pasadenans to take control of their network and information technology destiny.
However, there is more we can do, but it won't be easy. It will not be easy from a political perspective.
The city of Lafayette, LA has gifted itself with a fiber optic network that they plan to run as a public utility. Read about it here
. The account of their struggle against BellSouth to provide their community with the network they
want is heroic. In other words, Lafayette wants to decide what sort of network they want for themselves, rather than leave that to BellSouth shareholders. Like water and power, the citizens of Lafayette have decided they will provide themselves with a first rate fiber network. I believe Pasadena should follow their progressive model and do the same.
Networks are about communication, and about the innovative spaces they create. The Internet as we know it defines a marketplace where services and applications can develop and create wealth. You can put up a website today and with a lot of smarts and a little luck, become the next Google. Or eBay, or Amazon. You don't need permission to put your creation onto the network. Contrast this with a familiar service such as Caller ID, in its day offered by the phone company. Only the phone company could have offered such a service, and they decided when and at what cost the service would be offered. This is the "closed network model", characterized by central planning and control. The Internet, by contrast is decentralized and, at this point in history, no one "owns" it. This lack of central control is what gives the Internet its power, and is the property by which it has created the last ten years of tremendous wealth and creativity for us all.
The Internet is not a product of the phone company or the cable company. In fact, both those institutions prefer a world in which the Internet does not exist, such that they continue to decide what you can do on the network. Which would be buy the services they offer and essentially no one else's. That's why open, neutral networks are so important to the economy and our society -- they allow everyone
to play, not just the phone and cable companies.
The incumbents have recently made it clear
that they intend to prefer their own applications to whatever applications the competitors may be offering on the incumbent's network. In BusinessWeek 7 Nov AT&T CEO Whitacre says this of Google, Vonages, and others:
How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!
originally from here
. Keep in mind that the AT&T that went through divestiture in 1984 is for all practical purposes wholly reassambled now, and looms large in aiming to control the Internet. SBC, formerly SouthWestern Bell bought the remnants of the old AT&T long distance company, and renamed itself --- AT&T.
So fine, AT&T wants to be paid for access to their pipes. Today Google and Vonage are "the other"; tomorrow the other could be you or I, as we try to deploy the next Big Thing on the Internet. He's not saying consumers don't pay enough for Internet services, he's saying that Google, Vonage, eBay, etc, must pay him to be seen at all. Again, today Google, tomorrow you.
The problem with this is that it essentially spells the end of the Internet as an open platform on which to innovate, communicate, trade, and create wealth. Yes, email, IM, and web pages will continue to exist, because those genies are out of the bottle, but that's where innovation will stop. It will stop because innovators know that the network providers will prefer their own applications over competitor's, so why bother? Prefer means the phone company will arrange through network configuration that their voice services work better than, say, Vonage's. And innovators here means the rest of the world that does not own the physical network - the capital goods that make up networks -- routers, fiber, switches, etc. Competitors include Google, Amazon, you, and I.
This preference for the network operator's own applications has come to be called the two-tiered Internet
, where the operator's services get better "quality of service" than any one else's.
The belief that the network should not prefer one application over another, again, for the sake of a robust network that supports innovation for many years to come, has come to be known as network neutrality
I believe Pasadena should act progressively and create for itself, as Lafayette, LA has, a neutral network platform. And do it for the same reason we do it for water and electricity: the network has become essential to life as we know it, it is a public utility, and will produce wealth if we let anyone innovate on it with the lowest possible cost to entry.
Ed Whitacre is free to try to sell me expensive bottled water, but I prefer just cold city tap water. I should have the freedom to choose where the service is so essential to modern life. He thinks otherwise. We give ourselves electricity and water as a public good. Our network has entered the same realm: too important to entrust to distant shareholders who largely do not live here. We can do this. We can give ourselves this network because its good for our citizens. No argument that we should "not compete" with the private industry is good enough. It isn't good enough for water and electricity and roads, and it isn't good enough for our information economy.
And regulatory reform at the national level is pointless. No amount of "fair play" regulation can ensure the network neutrality that we deserve. The only recourse is to build our own network and give ourselves a network we control. Pasadena already has 120+ strands of fiber in the ground that circle the city. Let's start with that. And a municipal wireless network is on the way. Build on that. To fiber, to a 21st century network that doesn't discriminate.
Fiber communities are inevitable. The question we ask ourselves is: who should own the network? Verizon or AT&T, Charter Cable, or us?
I vote us.