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.
: Toward a More (Un)Wired World”>
It makes sense. Certain companies own the lines that run into our homes. In the interests of competition, weve forced them (or some of them, at least) to share their lines with competing providers.
But this should be no surprise. Corporations are amoral entities that exist solely to make money for their shareholders. When presented with a flawed and loophole-ridden regulatory environment, we cant expect these firms to do anything other than exploit every trick available to them. In fact, if were shareholders of these firms, which we may well be, if only through our pension plans and mutual funds, we demand this sort of Machiavellian behavior from them.
What we need to ensure competition and service innovation is a simpler regulatory environment, one in which the abuse (or maximization, depending on the content of your stock portfolio) of the line-owners preferential position is not possible.
We could enforce a level playing field among broadband providers by seizing the telco and cable company-owned lines for government ownership, under the argument that while the line-owners may own the lines, they do not own the land through which the lines run. However, this would be much, much tougher than enforcing a split of Microsoft into separate operating system and application companies, and we all know how that turned out.
Alternatively, we could bar line owners from competing for DSL or cable service—perhaps we could agree on a surcharge that each line-owning firm would be paid by DSL and cable service providers, to compensate them for having laid, and continuing to maintain, their lines.
Given our current political environment, I dont expect either of the above schemes to fly, nor do I believe that either would be the best course to take.
And so we wend back around to the proposed Boxer-Allen legislation, which would go a long way toward solving our line-ownership-based problems by pitching the lines out the window. Whats more, the chunk of spectrum that Boxer and Allen are attempting to set aside would allow for multiple providers to coexist in a single market.
In addition, wireless broadband could reach large numbers of rural and otherwise underserved Internet consumers, at drastically lower levels of capital expenditure.
And, since were talking about wireless spectrum, thered be no need for the government either to lay its own cable or to nationalize lines laid by others—those (un)wires sit pre-installed, and we all own them as a shared natural resource.
Of course, if the Boxer-Allen legislation goes anywhere, therell be plenty of pressure to distribute wireless broadband at auction in the same way that the spectrum held by wireless phone carriers has been allocated. The fact that the proposed Boxer-Allen scheme more closely resembles the fluid and open model on which 802.11b-based WiFi networks are based has so far been a point of contention among industry analysts and vendor spokespeople.
However, theres no reason to bind our wireless broadband future by saddling potential providers with debt like weve done with wireless carriers. After all, our experiments with spectrum auctioning have yielded molasses-slow movement toward 3G wireless data networks, and has made possible the fiasco in which a bankrupt NextWave now sits perched atop a chunk of unused spectrum.
There will be other opposition to the Broadband Jumpstart Act as well. First, the wireless phone carriers that have spent large amounts of money at auction for spectrum licenses arent likely to be pleased to see spectrum simply given away for the purpose of wireless broadband.
All isnt necessarily lost for wireless carriers, though. Theyll still have their wireless voice and data services to sell—it isnt clear whether the scheme developed to enable wireless broadband could provide competing services in those areas. Anyway, their licenses did not come with assurances that the government would not give spectrum away at a later date.
And then theres the US military, which now controls various swaths of electromagnetic spectrum, and which may fear that wireless broadband services will interfere with their operations. For one thing, various other nations, some of them European, have already set aside some of the same bandwidth that Boxer and Allen are examining for wireless broadband allocation.
And, as eWEEK Labs own resident uber-engineer Peter Coffee remarked, “If the DoD cant find a way to coexist with WiFi, then its systems certainly arent ready for a combat environment against any opponent more advanced than World War II radio technology.”
Finally, therere the telcos and the cable companies from which we now get our broadband. Like the wireless phone providers, these companies can keep on selling their core services—television programming and landline phone service.
Therell certainly be some losers in the deal, particularly as Internet telephony and online audio and video distribution ramps up in response to a more thoroughly broadband-equipped populace. However, expanded broadband access through wireless will yield many more winners than losers: the wireless broadband providers; purveyors of online content; computer hardware and software vendors; and best of all, individual Americans.
Remember, competition is a good thing, right?
So where do we sign up in support of wireless broadband? Start by contacting Sens. Barbara Boxer and George Allen to let them know youre with them. Then e-mail or fax your own senators and representatives. If youre not sure who they are, you can find your representative here and your senators here.
What do you think of the Broadband Jumpstart Act? Lets discuss it at [email protected].