Toss Broadband Hogs into the Sausage Factory

WASHINGTON -- Rob Atkinson, the affable founder and president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, has an interesting notion in these politically charged times: Can't we all get along when it comes to the issue of broadband?

In a white paper (PDF) earlier in September, Atkinson wrote, "The current broadband debate has degenerated into a highly partisan, ideological and bitter battle increasingly devoid of real analysis and lacking in any measure of civility." He added, "It's extremely difficult to make good public policy in an environment like this."

Genial as he is, Atkinson is not attempting to slap a happy face on the issue.

"There will continue to be legitimate differences over broadband policy," Atkinson wrote. "The right will be more likely to trust markets and worry about government failures. The left will be more likely to trust government and worry about corporate greed and market failures. But if we are to make to progress and make good policy, it's time to pull back from the unwarranted extremism."

To that end, Atkinson invited two of the most partisan warriors out there to engage in a debate over broadband policy: Harold Feld of the Media Access Project and Scott Cleland of the Precursor Group. In a downtown meeting room Sept. 9 they each gave a nod to Atkinson's odd notion of bipartisanship and then proceeded to throw out enough red meat to gag the Southwest Texas Cattlemen's Association.

"I'd like to start by agreeing it's not right, left ... that's a straw man argument," Cleland said. "There's a cleave that you didn't mention: what Silicon Valley wants and what consumers and taxpayers have to pay for."

Fair enough, but that's where the civility ended for Cleland.

"There's a hidden constituency here that wants the biggest, fastest network and that's the Silicon Valley," Cleland continued. "The reason why? They want a commons because they can put out products that presume that everybody else pays for their R&D and pays for their distribution. What a deal! Get consumers, broadband carriers and taxpayers to build you this 100-megabit network so that they can play and profit from it."

He was just getting started. "I call this is a Silicon Valley open checkbook scheme where they have no regard for cost effectiveness or utilization or anything like that," he said. "Oh, yeah, let's transfer tens of billions of dollars of wealth to the Silicon Valley billionaires so they have a playground that is free."

Cleland denounced the whole thing as "suckernomics. When some huge hog slops up to the trough and starts wanting to eat everybody else's meal, I have a problem."

That was too much hog slop for Feld.

"The bandwidth hog, the welfare queen and the rest of the menagerie of beasts that inhabit the debate around here, the fact here is that everybody who is using this system is paying," Feld said. "Anybody who has a server farm is paying big bucks to have pipes go into that server farm and carry dot content out. Every subscriber is paying for an explicit service of you giving me this pipe. There is nobody on this system who is getting a free ride."

As for all the hog calling that was going on by Cleland, Feld said, "The notion that there is some vast conspiracy of secret bandwidth hogs who are going out there, pumping free video, force-feeding it to people who are not paying for subscriptions, and that 2 percent of people are going into other people's homes to hijack their Internet connections is just silly."

Feld suggested "just tossing the bandwidth hog into the sausage factory and be done with it."

So much for the bipartisan debate.