The FCC v. Us
As much as one can fault the phone companies and cable companies for their behavior, the are acting within the rules of the Regulatorium. It is a folie à deux -- a shared madness in which the participants create their own reality. The carriers are behaving rationally in responding to the demands of the Regulatorium rather than their customers. In fact, the customers are a threat as they seek to wrest control from the gatekeepers.
21-Jul-2006Version 2: 2023-03-18 10:09:41

Assuring Opportunity!

It’s hard to imagine the world without the Web. The Web happened because Tim Berners-Lee wanted to share his writings with his colleagues. His project – the World Wide Web – was modest and very simple. He took advantage of the Internet and discovered what worked and what didn’t. He built on existing protocols. Others created browsers for Windows and other platforms.

This is the Opportunity Dynamic in action. Give people opportunity and they will add value in unpredictable ways – in a sense, the value comes because many people are trying out ideas. Even if only a few work out, they create the value that enriches us all.

The Internet itself is an example. It happened because its creators didn’t have control of the transport so they took a minimalist approach. Instead of selling you phone services, it just carries the data and lets you create your own solutions.

All the value was created outside the network. A small number phone companies decide what services they will offer you. The Internet gives millions of people the ability to create their own services (such as the Web) and share them others.

This is true for personal computing as well – VisiCalc ran on what was considered a toy computer yet it changed the way we though about computing – it became personal.

The Web was a modest project that gave others opportunity. The Internet itself was built as a prototype. It only hints at what is possible in the future – what is the next Web? What will happen when you can be connected all the time not just when you are at home?

The carriers keep warning us that they need to control every element of the network in order to make it work at all, let alone work well. Yet each time we’ve taken control and defined we’ve done a far better job of creating value and solving problems.

We tend to use physical models like sewer systems that need regional coordination. An essential difference is that digital systems don’t consume a limited resource – the more we use the more there is because we are finding new understandings and interpretations.

It is a marketplace of ideas. It is not the network itself it is what we do with it. It is what we can do ourselves.

We tend to assume that big systems are complicated and you must depend on a big company to create solutions!

The Internet is about the simplest system we’ve ever created!

That’s why it works so well – you can fix any problem with the digital equivalent of duct tape! Email gives us a great example—you don’t even need to use a special program!

Look at how many people create their own web pages – just add a few tags like “<h1>” for a top header and <b>Bold</b> markups. Even if you can’t to it yourself you can easily find someone to do it for you.

And so what if you make a mistake, just fix the problem. It’s hard to really break things. Sure there are viruses and other problems – the Internet is an ecology and it co-evolves with the challenges.

Not only is the Internet very simple – we create it ourselves. If you put a wireless access point in your home you extend the Internet. You can choose to extend your network by interconnecting with your neighbors and then interconnecting each community by using own wires or radios.

The problem is that the FCC was chartered in 1934 to assure that we had a viable telecommunications industry which would provide us with services like telephone calls and radio broadcasting. There was no need for giving us access to the transport itself.

The FCC is acting as if it is 1934 and is treating the Internet as just another service as if it were a TV station. It cannot come to terms with the idea that Internet connectivity is fundamental and that we can create services ourselves. It insists we must limit our choices to the carriers’ offerings.

Something is very wrong – the transport should be infrastructure. Instead the carriers run their wires and radios so they can sell us their choice of services at a profit.

We are not allowed to solve our own problems – even in a crisis like 9/11 or Katrina we must wait for others to solve our problems!

We can’t buy more capacity – we must choose among available services. The Internet itself is treated as a service and the carriers must maintain artificial scarcity to maintain their prices and coerce us into buying service they choose!

The carriers claim that only they can give us broadband and we must pay for it by buying their services. This coercion would be concerned highly illegal were it not for the protection afforded by the FCC! The FCC tells us it is limiting our choices for our own good.

In 1927 the Federal Radio Commission got an exemption from first amendment principles so it could choose who could own a radio station. Today it continues to deny the Internet’s abundant connectivity and not only does it limit our choices of services. It seeks to protect us from dirty words. Not only can’t we be trusted with creating our own solutions – we can’t be trusted with free speech!

We are up against a conceptual abyss between those who seek to assert their authority and those who wrote a constitution for the “Land of Opportunity”.

While we can get more “Internet”, even if it is a service, it is not really our Internet. We have to go home and then sign in to a service provider who asserts the right to dictate how we use the network.

We can’t create our own solutions if we must confirm to the carriers restrictions and aren’t able to assume you are connected wherever you are. It’s like the difference between having to dial into the Internet and assume your home is simply connected.

Broadband is yesterdays’ Internet! The future Internet won’t be discovered unless we have the ability to create our own solutions. What good is the Internet if you only get it at home as if it were a television station?

Instead of having connected devices you get a cell phone and the carriers restrict what you can do with it and charge a high price for being connected at a slow speed. You cannot extend the cellular network and must sign up for a new high priced account for each device. It’s as if you had to pay $50/month just to put a printer on your home network for your own use.

It’s just like the days when we had black phones and it was illegal to have an answering machine or connect our own devices.

The FCC is socialism at its worst – it was created with the intent of assuring that Capitalism would not be able to disrupt a well-ordered marketplace no matter what the consequences. It’s as if the oil companies were able to make it illegal to own our own cars and forced us to buy rides from them.

The concept of Network Neutrality gives voice to anger over unfairness but there is no constituency for what people could not imagine. When the telephone itself was introduced few people saw the need—after all, if you don’t have a telephone you don’t know people in the next town so why would you want to talk to them?

The carriers prey upon this complacency—no one was asking for the Internet. They didn’t even have the concept of the Internet. Today they want more web but don’t know how to ask for more opportunity.

Now that we do have Internet connectivity the carriers are trying to scare us. They warn us about the dangers of abundance! In the best tradition of Yogi Berra they warn is that if everyone could create services no one would – or at least they wouldn’t. It’s absurd but they co-evolved with the regulators who seem to have a high tolerance for dissonance.

We have a stark choice – maintain the FCC’s Regulatorium. We now know that it is a fiction – the Internet puts a lie to the entire fetid mess and demonstrates how much better we can do if we had opportunity.

America is no longer the land of opportunity – we can now innovate only at the sufferance of the incumbency. We are following the example of 1800’s Europe as we watch the rest of the world move past us!

If we look at the history of the so-called telecommunications industry we see a pattern – the carriers warn us that the world will fall apart if they lose total control; the courts tell them to stop fibbing; we create new value and solutions. And are far better off for having done so.

Why is it so hard to learn this obvious lesson? Sure there are billions of dollars at stake – but that’s trivial compared with the cost of forced dependency.

It’s Our Infrastructure – at every step along the way the FCC and its coevolved children have sought to prevent us from solving our own problems. And each time not only did their claims turn out to be groundless – we saw new products and services the carriers could not imagine. Imagine a world without answering machines and faxes, let alone the Internet.