NEW YORK, November 12, 2014 – The Internet Society of New York (ISOC-NY) and the Federal Communications Bar Association gathered at Brooklyn Law School’s Forchelli Center on a beautiful November day here. The views of Brooklyn from the 22nd floor, across to Staten Island and New Jersey, were breathtaking. The action was indoors in a marathon event covering all aspects of positively disruptive technology. ISOC member Joly MacFie posted a streaming video is available here.
Speaking first was James Dutcher, CIO of SUNY Cobleskill, located in the Adirondack Mountains west of Schenectady. Broadband competition is coming slowly to rural areas, and the agricultural and medical school just got a better deal on bandwidth because of “just the possibility of competition. The price dropped from $70,000 per year to $60,000 and the bandwidth rose from 200 Megabit per second (Mbps) to 1 Gigabit per second.
Dutcher pled with attendees to not think of broadband in rural areas as only connecting farms to the internet. He said the school just purchased 15 Google Glass devices for its medical and other programs and that Google provided an additional 15 devices for free. “We’re doing telemedicine in upstate New York,” Dutcher said.
Equality, Fairness, and Freedom
Tim Karr of the Free Press warned that censorship happens to citizen journalist protesters and credentialed journalists alike in New York, as well as in Kiev, Cairo, and Gezi Park in Turkey. He said that the issues of press freedom and freedom from censorship on the internet are becoming two aspects of one issue (as its of defining importance for Free Press.
Karr said his group also supports the USA Freedom Act, which would require an alliance of libertarian Republicans and anti-surveillance Democrats to pass, plus making additional radio frequency spectrum available on an unlicensed basis.
Karr said that households with $100,000 or more in annual income have high-quality broadband while 20 million Americans cannot get it at any price. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a 500 Mbps connection costs residents $25 per month, he said.
I asked whether any of Free Press’ policies had a chance in the new Congress. “Obama called for net neutrality today,” Karr replied. “We’ve been working on this for 10 years. We’re releasing a survey tomorrow, and a rewrite of the Telecom Act is on the table. It makes me giddy.”
He said, however, that local governments will play a critical role. They need to review and police local franchise agreements. He recommended Susan Crawford’s new book on that score.
Dave Burstein, a veteran telecom reporter and principal at Fast Net News said that the United States can do more for Africa. He said that Africa will soon have more internet subscribers than the U.S. thanks to smartphones, but that pricing in Africa is horrific.
The price of internet in Africa right now: $170 per megabit in Lagos. If SUNY Cobleskill faced that price, it would be paying $170,000 per year instead of $60,000. It would be easy for the U.S. to lower African prices, Burstein said. Tariffs on undersea cables to Africa are higher than similar cables to Europe and Asia that experience greater competition. While 10 percent of the continent is without power, but cell phone companies are learning how to build towers outside the electric grid.
Meanwhile, in the USA, Burstein warned that technology that could deliver 10 to 100 times the bandwidth currently available to cell phones may never be deployed. The problem is politics, not technology – and he blamed incumbent communications companies and their lobbyists for creating what he described as fictions regarding a spectrum shortage.
Internet service providers in the U.S. are not promoting multi-SSID routers in the home. In Paris, these dual-network wireless routers have created a city-wide Wi-Fi cloud.
Breaking out of the Pipe Jail
Bob Frankston, co-creator of the first spreadsheet software, VisiCalc, said that networks should be built from the bottom up, not the top down. He said that a wire running internet into your home “is like a loan that you’re never allowed to pay off.” There’s a fixed cost to building it, but you’re paying a high monthly price for it for the rest of your life.
He said it’s not just a bad deal: the builder has every incentive to limit your freedom and promote scarcity in order to protect its pricing. Telecom is a loan from someone who uses your payment to limit your freedom. “Telecommunications companies are in the business of preventing people from communicating in order to charge money. But Skype shows that the telecommunications companies cannot prevent the internet from providing free communications.”
He said that internet applications are built to use any and all facilities, whereas telecommunications companies want to ensure that their users need them. “Net neutrality is necessary only if we accept that someone controls the pipes.”
Frankston doesn’t want the networks to be built by municipalities because they would charge for it and the act of billing places the customer and network owner in an adversarial position. “I fear a new boss who will act just like the old boss. As long as we finance infrastructure as a profit center, infrastructure is an economic problem not a technology problem.”
A network owner deriving pricing power from scarcity will always fight innovation, he said.
Editor’s Note: Alexander Goldman is a recent graduate of Brooklyn Law School, and recently passed the New York Bar Examination. He worked at ISP-Planet and ISPCON, was Chief Analyst for CTI’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants, and had internships at the Federal Communications Commission and the Internet Division of the NY State Attorney General. At Brooklyn Law School, he was a Trade Secrets Fellow and won CALI awards in Contracts and Antitrust.