Thursday, February 09, 2006

Shock: Federal Representative Talks Sense

In a shocking display of actual competence Representative Boucher of Virginia talks good sense about the saving the internet and Net Neutrality. Saith the Rep:
Internet2, a nonprofit partnership of universities, companies and affiliate organizations, including federal agencies and laboratories, has been studying this matter and has demonstrated that a multitrack Internet model is unnecessary to assure quality of service. Internet2 has for the past seven years deployed an advanced broadband network to more than 5 million users and has learned that in a network with enough bandwidth there is no congestion and no bits need preferential treatment because all of them arrive quickly enough to assure excellent quality, even if intermingled...

In countries such as Japan and Korea, network speeds over the last mile of 100 megabits per second (mbps) are common. In the United States, our typical speed is less than 1 mbps. If broadband providers would increase their network speeds to approximate those in other countries, all content would reach consumers with assured quality. No prioritization of bits would be needed.
So where's the competence? Well, first off Boucher notices that the US problem is in the last mile--where our incumbent providers have failed us. We have excess backbone capacity. So he first locates the problem correctly. Then he goes on to notice that other countries with real last mile broadband don't need fancy Quality of Service or other bandwidth sapping prioritization schemes because they've got plenty of bandwidth. And he backs that up by qouting our own smart guys and noticing that where we have enough bandwidth the problems the incumbents are whining about go away. The man's thinking. Hell, he's competent.

The problem the folks at the telco's want to solve (choppy VOIP, blocky video) with "tiers" and "prioritization" is a problem of their own making. Rewarding them for their own failure is exactly the wrong way to go. (The right response? Fund your own big broadband utility. Lafayette is right.)

I worked at the university of Delaware when Internet2 came in and we got hooked up to it. Very damned nice, I assure you. The limiting factor was our ethernet switches which actually got used at something near to capacity on occasion. I had nice service from Comcast at home but I'd trek up to my office to watch net video...full screen, no stuttering at all.

Boucher is right: the solution to the consumer issues Verizon, ATT, & our own BellSouth try to mislead us with is simply more bandwidth. Good VOIP. Bandwidth. Streaming HDTV. More bandwidth. I have no doubt that the Internet 2 eggheads are right that there are ways to get big bandwidth over that last mile that are cheaper than squeezing your entire network through elaborate filters. Control is always expensive. All that prioritization really does is take the limited bandwidth the Bell's failing business plan gives us and allocates enough of it to, say, BellSouth's VOIP product so that it works. (Oh, and Vonage or Google's version doesn't. But hey, that's the telco's "best effort.") What Boucher is too much the politician to say is that minimizing your expense is not the point. Maximizing the profit the Bells get out of "their" network is.

The Bells want to avoid "commodification" of their bits. You, dear reader, desire nothing less. Technology, and history, is on your side and the Bells know it. Unless forcibily prevented the natural flow is from specialization to commodification. The transformation from commodity service to high priced specialization won't happen unless the telco's can enlist the aid of the federal government. Unless they gain control, and soon, you are going to get used to paying less and less for a faster and faster flow of what is really nothing more than a bunch of undifferentiated series of ones an zeros. The telcos rather you paid for "services" that they can make "premium" or degrade to "best effort." They'd like to conceal the fact that all they really have to offer is control of the last mile of the bit pipe. If you understand this you'll never be convinced to give them anything like the income you're giving the cablecos.

(And yes, its not just greed that's got its hooks into the telcos, its also envy--a second of the deadly sins. And yes, what we really should want is to move cable toward the commodification model as well. But that's a much harder row to hoe. And an even longer post.)

Here's how commodification works if that term is proving unfamiliar: Most products start out as specialty, hand-crafted items. The parts that go into them are rare and and expensive. The skills needed to construct them are pricey. But our entire economy is built to take such items and make the progressively more and more common, more similar, and less expensive. We really are the wealthiest generation the world has ever known and this process is at the basis of a lot of that. If you're willing to give up a little uniqueness you can get almost anything absurdly cheaply. If you're reading this you're almost certainly using a recently commodified object: the computer. I recall (don't laugh) when 512 K machines with a 9 inch black and white screen sold for 3,000 uninflated dollars and a LaserWriter printer with a staggering 3 megs of memory and a 10 meg (that's meg) hard drive was in the 5000 dollar range. I helped my wife's graphic business buy them and while they were called personal computers the only people we knew who owned one were either typesetters or architects. A machine with those specs would not be considered adequate to describe the laptops MIT hopes to provide 3rd world grade schoolers these days. At a projected price of 100 dollars per. Graphic designers and Architects are using machines that in that not-so-far gone era would have been so powerful that they would have been called supercomputers and have been illegal to export to many nations.

That, my friend is commodification. Computers have gone from being expensive, finely crafted machines to standardized, knock-off, el cheapo stuff that you can't charge much for. (Much better machines than our 3000 dollar one are on sale now at WalMart.com for 300.) A commodity is defined by the production of mass quantities of the product that are, for practical purposes indistinguishable. All commodity markets are cutthroat by definition. The producers make pennies on the dollar and have to make money by selling many units cheaply.

You, as a consumer, like commodities. But companies hate it.

The telcos hate it.

They aren't interested in the commodity sale of bits. They are interested in transforming their commodity transport of undifferentiated bits into an elaborate series of "specialized services." Right now you are buying by the bit--so many bits per second regardless of what is represented by those bits, be it video, web pages, google searches, email, whatever. All you care about when making your purchase now is how fast and how cheap. The telco's want to change that so that they sell souped up products such as "video gold" or "google search premium." It's a huge con. Here's the dirty secret: Packet prioritization always less efficient for the network as a whole than not prioritizing anything. The process of prioritzing bits in one place always eats up more capacity overall than it saves locally. Sort of an "entropy" principle for the information age. The consumer will always be better served by solving service problems by throwing more bandwidth at it.

The public, the people Boucher and all our representatives serve, will be better served by increasing their bandwidth than by allowing the telco's to transform our current, increasingly commodified, system into a series of "products" by carving up an internet they serve with inadequate bandwidth into specialized pipes which work ok--if you pay extra for it.

The battle cry should be "One Big Pipe." (I've no hope we'll rush to the barricades under the banner of "Increased Commodification." :-))

That is what Representative Boucher of Virginia understands. Boucher gets it. We need to demand that our representatives get a clue too.

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