Toward a More (Un)Wired World

The Jumpstart Broadband Act could go a long way toward democratizing Internet access.

Id sooner give up my satellite television, my wireless and landline phone services, and take to eating ramen noodles five nights a week than give up my broadband Internet access. OK, maybe ramen only two or three nights a week, but were still talking sacrifice here.

The Internet is the most democratic and most thoroughly variegated information distribution mechanism known to humankind, and weve only scarcely tapped its vast potential.

The key to the future of the Internet is broadband, but according to telecommunications analysts, as few as 11 percent of U.S. homes are broadband-enabled. Many Americans, such as those in rural areas, have no access to broadband at all. For those who do, high prices (my DSL runs $50 a month) are keeping Internet users chained to pokey dial-up connections.

We may find a solution in legislation that U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and George Allen intend to introduce next year: widespread penetration of high-speed Internet access via wireless links, similar to those of the 802.11b wireless networks that now proliferate in homes and businesses.

The legislation, known so far as "The Jumpstart Broadband Act," would direct the FCC to make available for wireless broadband 255MHz of electromagnetic spectrum below 6GHz, and to set regulations to limit interference with neighboring radio signals.

Im convinced that wireless offers us our best shot at bringing broadband Internet to as many Americans homes as desire it, and Ill tell you why.

More widespread broadband availability depends, as do most other desirable innovations, on competition. As it stands now, our broadband landscape is fundamentally ill-suited for competition.

The problem centers on the lines that bring broadband into our homes. For DSL, the dwindling group of telcos that once comprised AT&T, now known as RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies) in regulatory lingo, own the networks that deliver DSL services to our homes. Now, the RBOCs are supposed to share their lines with their rivals, known as CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers).

I have a buddy who works as an analyst at the California Public Utilities Commission, and he and his co-workers spend each day laboring to keep our RBOC, SBC Communications, honest in its dealings with its competitors.

It shouldnt surprise anyone that the CLECs have trouble squaring off against the RBOCs, on whom they depend to reach their customers.

For cable-based broadband, the cable companies (or is it cable company? Im not sure whether theyve yet merged their way out of pluralization) dont have to share their lines at all. This isnt because this policy makes a lick of sense—it doesnt—but because our Secretary of States son Mike and the FCC say so.

As a result, our cable and DSL broadband situation is similar to the situation we have with Microsoft, which owns the dominant computing platform, Windows, and competes with the multitude of software and middleware vendors that depend on the Windows platform for running the applications they sell. Microsoft has all the leverage, and it can and does pull numerous tricks to keep its offerings atop the software heap.