Be Careful Lest You Get What You Ask For
If we want more Internet connectivity we must not ask for broadband. They are not the same thing. We've managed to salvage broadband as transport but the price we pay is that we are disconnected unless we are near our TVs and PCs.20-Jan-2007

A picture of this column is available at Von Magazine.

The US is falling behind in Broadband! Let’s hurry up and get more of it!

What is this broadband anyway and what are we going to do with all that speed? Get more television? Download faster? was very jealous when France deployed Minitel in the early 1980’s. Everyone in France got a computer terminal. It was a great success and seemed like France’s Internet years before the Web. But it was locked into a particular service model and made it difficult for France to embrace the Internet.

Fortunately there wasn’t a Minitel gap – instead the US hobbled along with a disparate set of online services and, eventually that included the Web.

Our secret was “free” phone service. It wasn’t really free – we do pay a monthly fee. Thanks to common carriage (a cousin of antitrust) the carriers had to let us use modems to connect. They wouldn’t force us to use their own data transport – ISDN which was priced on the presumption that data was a high value business service. If we had the hurdle of justifying commercial prices we wouldn’t have discovered consumer services, including the many private Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) that prepared us to embrace the web.

The carriers’ only goal is maximizing revenue. They created ADSL to use their existing wires to offer Interactive TV. Even as they complained about all those modems overloading their network their actions told a different story. The wires had so little value there was no point in using ADSL to increase the first mile capacity by a factor of a 1000.

The web gave people a reason to use the Internet and create their own services. The modem enabled them to do so. We didn’t need an excuse like a dialup-gap. It was only after the demand for connectivity had been well-established that the cable companies saw the opportunity for incremental revenue by offering “Internet” alongside their other products.

ADSL became the successor to ISDN. They also saw an opportunity to offer a complete bundle, the triple-play that was the successor to their ITV hopes. They were going to place special equipment in your home and then sell you services and also lease out space to other service providers for a fee as if they could replace our door with a tollbooth. In doing home networking I helped take back control of our home. Broadband is the new tollbooth.

Broadband was the technical term for how the CableCos ran their wires but it has become a generic term for high bandwidth service delivery. Unlike ISDN, today’s broadband is priced for consumer services. But only those services that exist now!

What we lose is the modem-dynamic that allowed the Internet to emerge. Thanks to psychological transference we confuse the term “broadband” with what we like about the Internet and want more. But it’s not at all like the Internet. Broadband is just a transport we happen to use because it is available. Like Minitel and ISDN it seems wonderful but it is a dead end.

Broadband is like having a very fast train – it doesn’t allow us to drive and discover new possibilities. Speed is nice but for what? Far more important to have connectivity everywhere rather than just when we’re in front of our PC and/or TV (as if they are different).

Just as ISDN pricing would have prevented us from discovering the web, today’s Broadband pricing is preventing us from taking advantage of connectivity. We can’t assume connectivity unless people subscribe at today’s inflated prices – now that the cable and telephone systems are identical we get no additional capacity from competition but we find ourselves paying for two infrastructures. It’s even worse than having two local power grids – the architecture of broadband systems fails to take advantage of the cost savings afforded by using a mesh architecture rather than a tree.

Broadband makes it difficult to think of connectivity as basic infrastructure. It locks bits into billing paths rather than allowing them to leak out to provide ubiquitous connectivity. It means cities not only can’t take advantage of the cost savings that come from using a common infrastructure – they find themselves building an additional infrastructure or even multiple for each purpose!

Broadband makes it seem as if the Internet were an expensive luxury out there instead of being a fundamental resource everywhere.

Be careful what you ask for – more broadband is a very fast train to nowhere!