Regulating broadband and wireless

For the record, I am in favor of unlicensed frequency spectrum and in favor of “net neutrality”. By “unlicensed frequency spectrum,” I’m referring to the sort of free use of sections of the electromagnetic spectrum (e.g. the 2.4Ghz Industrial/Scientific/Medical band) that allow people to transmit without having to purchase the spectrum from the government.
I used to think that the availability of unlicensed spectrum was unassailable as a public good. IEEE 802.11-based networking (i.e WiFi) has completely transformed computing and has allowed people to create/share/consume content and to pervasively communicate with others at levels completely unprecedented and completely wonderful. Wireless networking first got really popular when I was in graduate school, but it now seems inseparable from university campus life. Those not belonging to university communities or (tech) companies with their own deployments may not understand how WiFi has changed the game. Outside of those environments, we have coffee shops with free/semi-free wireless (lovely) and other places with paid wireless (*sigh*), but if your experience is only with those few spots, then you won’t understand. It’s like getting internet at home through dial-up versus ‘broadband’. Broadband (esp. with static, public IP addresses) is just a far more pervasive networking experience, and it changes the way we get information. Wireless networking has that effect.

But wireless networking existed before WiFi and 802.11, so why didn’t we go wireless earlier? The main reason for the creation of 802.11 and its subsequent explosion was the availability of the unlicensed 2.4Ghz band. Now anyone could produce equipment operating on that band and sell that equipment to anyone else. There’s hardly any incentive to do this if that spectrum is licensed, since only the spectrum owner will buy such equipment, and even a humongously rich owner has less money than, uh, the rest of the world. Sometimes the lack of control in unlicensed spectrum is a pain– my wireless connection drops every time my colleague uses the 2.4Ghz cordless phone– but my connection would not exist without unlicensed spectrum that enabled the creation of my wifi hardware.

This being how I feel, I read Wired’s article on an upcoming proposed frequency auction and was struck by the linked articles that decry open-access spectrum. Corporate welfare for dot-com billionaires? Please. Open access spurs innovation. Do you have a wireless router at home? It’s conceivable that (insert traditional telco name) could’ve taken part of their licensed spectrum and sold people wireless hardware (for laptops and home routers), but did they? No. Would they have? Probably not. Look at where they are with wireless data plans and hardware. Is that market flourishing? Every laptop sold has wireless these days, but not connectivity to a 2.5/3G data carrier. I should be happy that 3G data is available at all. It just costs them a lot more to provide the service than it costs for lots of independent places to provide WiFi hotspots.

Perhaps I should have expected an opponent of open access to decry net neutrality as well, but I wasn’t expecting him to be so bold as to say that net neutrality is “anti-consumer.” Come on. Net neutrality is equalizing in the way that it levels the costs of bandwidth for everyone. It means that a kid putting his skateboarding videos up on a webserver in his garage has his data treated the same as CNN trying to stream advertisements and breaking video of (insert rich young celebrity name)’s arrest for DUI.

Anyway, this article on broadband by the same misguided soul who decries open-access talks about how there’s no broadband problem in the US. Oh, I don’t know about that. I think we’ve just gotten used to the slow pace at which our telecom companies give us speed. Verizon is trying to roll out their FIOS fiber service with 5down/2up Mbps at $40 and 15down/2up Mbps at $50, while Japan had 100Mbps Ethernet available a few years ago (and is working on mandating Gbps Ethernet in a few years). 20Mbps became prevalent in South Korea years ago, so in 2004, Korean ISPs had to compete on service, since 20Mbps was, well, uninteresting. Besides, 90% of South Korean homes had 3Mbps or greater at home, with overall average of 8Mbps.
I think Japan and South Korea look at our level of broadband the way we look at dialup.

I’ll be the first to say that America has a harder problem in deploying telecommunications– we have a huge area of deployment and we built our cities around cars as transportation (which now seems rather foolish with oil and anthropogenic abrupt climate change)– but surely we can do better. I still think America (particularly Silicon Valley) invents much of the technology in use for all of this, so don’t we have some advantage?
I’ll take a moment here to say that with corruption and other troubles in corporate governance, smaller companies tend to be more efficient at producing value. There’s less people to spread out blame. Higher-ups can more easily see the impact of their decisions on their employees in the trenches and junior employees are less likely to assign any air of nobility or rich-and-famous-glow to their higher-ups. And in any case, the world changes quickly. Smaller companies are more agile, and younger companies have less traditions to reinvent when they adapt.

Anyway, have a nice day. And remember that it will be hard for people older than Bill Gates to understand these new technologies, so go with someone younger, or in the industry. There was something said about technology and our perspective as we age: “Things which existed in our 20s are natural and obvious, while things invented after our 30s are indistinguishable from magic.” Please correct this quote if you know the source.

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