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Broadband's Impact

Bob Frankston: It’s Time to Move From ‘Broadband’ to ‘Infrastructure’

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The success of the internet demonstrates that we now depend on network operators to assure that services like telephony work. The carriers are pushing back on neutrality because their business model is threatened by a level playing field. We should be encouraging innovative internet-native business models rather than working to preserve an industry threatened by innovation.

The debate over network neutrality is framed within traditional telecommunications policy. As such it considers the internet to be just another service like phone calls or cable television. The internet is different. When we used dialup modems we did internetworking as users. With DSL and cable modems the telecommunications (and cable) companies got into the business of providing “internet”.

Whether we used our own modems of dial-up or the carriers supplied the modems, raw packets themselves are a commodity whose value comes from entirely what we do with them.

France’s Minitel is about providing services, not just transport

Of course, the telecom providers wanted to use their facilities to provide valuable services. The regulators were properly concerned about the very real conflict of interest in having the facilities owners competing with their customers. The internet was shoehorned into this framework despite the fact that it wasn’t really a service.

France’s Minitel information service was one of the most successful efforts to provide smart services. The price (or rate) you paid was tied to the phone number for that service. It was very successful because it broke from tradition in its approach. But Minitel couldn’t compete on a level playing field with the internet and the web in particular.

Cable TV isn’t considered a network service like Minitel. But with everything becoming digital, cable content too, is increasingly moving to the open internet.

The carriers are left with just dumb pipes. With network neutrality they have little opportunity to earn money with the revenue from services in transit across those pipes. Not even a service so basic as more reliable delivery. Furthermore, there is no differentiation – all pipes are the same. This means competing pipes are like competing electric grids – it doesn’t make economic sense. We have a single grid that supports competition by providers of content – electricity – using a common infrastructure. There is also competition from other energy sources.

Everyone is increasingly adept at programming around the network

The problem, with or without, neutrality, is that we’re increasingly adept at programming around the network. The packets don’t depend on reserved paths or pipes – they can each take a different path and are assembled at the end points.

Instead of trying to bring back Minitel we need to look forward to expanding the level playing field.

It means understanding that we no longer need networking as a service. We simply need a way to get packets forwarded because we implement the services (like phone calls – as with Skype) in our own computers.

This “not-an-network” approach is also called the end-to-end argument. That means services can be implemented at the end points (outside the network) without depending on network operators along the path. And if we don’t depend on network operators, they can’t charge for services.

This profound change isn’t obvious because we still buy broadband services from a provider just like we did in the days of dial up modems. We even call them cable modems.

Internetworking Boston (home) with Seattle (Microsoft)

In 1995 I was at Microsoft, based in Seattle but was working from home in Boston. I had long been building my own networks using the same principles as the internet. I was fortunate to learn about the technologies as they developed and to work with some of the designers first hand. I knew that a local network wasn’t even a network. It was just a shared wire (or radios). The networking was done entirely in the connected computers.

But I didn’t want to just dial up and connect one computer to an online service. I wanted my home entire network to be interconnected with the rest of the internet (and to Microsoft’s campus network). At that time, you were supposed to get a separate account for each computer just like you did for each phone line. After all, that’s the way dialup modems worked. I took a different approach because I was interconnected to a network and all the computers would share a single connection.

At that time the term broadband was used for a fat pipe that the provider would use to sell services. This is why AT&T paid a high price for my local cable company – MediaOne. They expected to make money just as Minitel had. By selling phone calls, cable TV, meter reading and to gain a new revenue streams from ecommerce, meter-reading and whatever else they could offer.

By using the intelligence in my computers all I needed was one shared connection and all AT&T saw was just a jumble of packets that all looked the same. And because I was working at Microsoft I was able to get this capability built into Windows. Users no longer needed a network professional to setup a home network. They could just buy what they need at any computer store!

While I can’t claim all the credit I do assume that this contributed to AT&T being bought by SBC. Today’s AT&T is really SBC.

The business model of telecommunications and country’s needs for connectivity do not match

We have today’s regulatory system because the business model of telecommunications and the needs of the country for connectivity were not a good match. In the days of telegraphy and then telephony, the high capital costs and little differentiation required a regulatory agency to assure an orderly marketplace,

We start by recognizing that the moving of the intelligence outside of networks inverts the model. The internet is not something we get through a broadband pipe. Instead we turn the pipe around and originate the services from within our own homes (or offices). We use that broadband pipe and any other facilities as commoditized resources.

This means we need locally owned infrastructure that is more like sidewalks and roads than like train tracks. I’m careful to use the word infrastructure rather than utility to avoid the idea we’re consuming anything anymore than we consume sidewalks when we take a stroll. Water and electricity are metered by usage. It doesn’t make sense to talk about using up a supply of ones and zeros. There is no scarcity of “internet.”

We pay for sidewalks as a community; we should do the same for ‘ambient connectivity’

We pay for sidewalks as a community. We join together to pay for the paths in an apartment complex or as a city for paving the paths. Sidewalks are not strictly necessary. We have them because they facilitate walking and make the city a better place.

And like sidewalks, “ambient connectivity” is free-to-use. Today each innovative application like medical monitoring requires a separate negotiation with carriers who don’t get much revenue from devices that generate little traffic. We avoid depending on relationships with a myriad of carriers just to assure connectivity. With Ambient Connectivity we get to “just works” and unleash major innovation.

Imagine communicating without a monthly fee merely to connect. That monthly fee will soon seem as strange as paying just to cross the street.

As we transition to Ambient Connectivity we can continue to use the existing telecommunications infrastructure as just another wire. And that’s the crux of the problem for the providers – they are indeed just another wire with all the value being in applications.

During this transition we do need network neutrality more-than-ever in order to assure that the carriers don’t fight the future by abusing their stewardship of our vital means of communicating.

Companies like Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T are now in the media business

This is harsh for them but, it’s just business. Companies like Comcast and Time Warner have moved on and are now in the content business knowing full well that the networks are no longer the focus of their business. Verizon and ATT are following along. They may or may not succeed in this strategy. Time will tell.

The battle over network neutrality is framed in the existing regulatory framework which treats the internet as just another telecom service rather than something new. We must look ahead not backwards. We must seize opportunity to add trillions to the economy. Just think about what would happen if we just reduced everyone’s internet and cellular phone bills by perhaps $100/month and returned nearly a thousand dollars a year to every family in America while providing a level playing field for new businesses.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com. Other commentaries are welcome, at commentary@broadbandcensus.com.

Bob Frankston has been online and using/building computer networks since 1966. He is the co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it, and is a fellow of the IEEE, ACM and the Computer History Museum. More at frankston.com, https://rmf.vc/Bio and https://rmf.vc/InfraFAQ

(Photo of computer pioneer Bob Frankston by Dennis Hamilton used with permission.)

Bob Frankston has been online and using/building computer networks since 1966. He is the co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it, and is a fellow of the IEEE, ACM and the Computer History Museum.

Broadband's Impact

Technology Policy Institute Introduces Data Index to Help Identify Connectivity-Deprived Areas

The Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple datasets to try to get a better understanding of well- and under-connected areas in the U.S.

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Scott Wallsten is president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute

WASHINGTON, September 16, 2021 – The Technology Policy Institute introduced Thursday a broadband data index that it said could help policymakers study areas across the country with inadequate connectivity.

The TPI said the Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple broadband datasets to compare overall connectivity “objectively and consistently across any geographic areas.” It said it will be adding it soon into its TPI Broadband Map.

The BCI uses a “machine learning principal components analysis” to take into account the share of households that can access fixed speeds the federal standard of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload and 100/25 – which is calculated based on the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data with the American Community Survey – while also using download speed data from Ookla, Microsoft data for share of households with 25/3, and the share of households with a broadband subscription, which comes from the American Community Survey.

The BCI has a range of zero to 10, where zero is the worst connected and 10 is the best. It found that Falls Church, Virginia was the county with the highest score with the following characteristic: 99 percent of households have access to at least 100/25, 100 percent of households connect to Microsoft services at 25/3, the average fixed download speed is 243 Mbps in Ookla in the second quarter of this year, and 94 percent of households have a fixed internet connection.

Meanwhile, the worst-connected county is Echols County in Georgia. None of the population has access to a fixed connection of 25/3, which doesn’t include satellite connectivity, three percent connect to Microsoft’s servers at 25/3, the average download speed is 7 Mbps, and only 47 percent of households have an internet connection. It notes that service providers won $3.6 million out of the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide service in this county.

“Policymakers could use this index to identify areas that require a closer look. Perhaps any county below, say, the fifth percentile, for example, would be places to spend effort trying to understand,” the TPI said.

“We don’t claim that this index is the perfect indicator of connectivity, or even the best one we can create,” TPI added. “In some cases, it might magnify errors, particularly if multiple datasets include errors in the same area.

“We’re still fine-tuning it to reduce error to the extent possible and ensure the index truly captures useful information. Still, this preliminary exercise shows that it is possible to obtain new information on connectivity with existing datasets rather than relying only on future, extremely expensive data.”

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Broadband's Impact

New Report Recommends Broadening Universal Service Fund to Include Broadband Revenues

A Mattey Consulting report finds broadband revenues can help sustain the fund used to connect rural and low-income Americans.

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Carol Mattey of Mattey Consulting LLC

WASHINGTON, September 14, 2021— Former deputy chief of the Federal Communications Commission Carol Mattey released a study on Tuesday recommending the agency reform the Universal Service Fund to incorporate a broad range of revenue sources, including from broadband.

According to the report by Mattey’s consulting firm Mattey Consulting LLC, revenues from “broadband internet access services that are increasingly used by Americans today should contribute to the USF programs that support the expansion of such services to all,” it said. “This will better reflect the value of broadband internet access service in today’s marketplace for both consumers and businesses.”

Mattey notes that sources of funding for the USF, which are primarily from voice revenues and supports expanding broadband to low-income Americans and remote regions, has been shrinking, thus putting the fund in jeopardy. The contribution percent reached a historic high at 33.4 percent in the second quarter this year, and decreased slightly after that, though Mattey suggested it could soar as high as 40 percent in the coming years.

“This situation is unsustainable and jeopardizes the universal broadband connectivity mission for our nation without immediate FCC reform,” Mattey states in her report, “To ensure the enduring value of the USF program and America’s connectivity goals, we must have a smart and substantive conversation about the program’s future.”

According to Mattey’s data, the assessed sources (primarily voice) of income will only continue to shrink over the coming years, while unassessed sources will continue to grow. Mattey’s report was conducted in conjunction with INCOMPAS, NTCA: The Rural Broadband Association, and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“It is time for the FCC to take action, and to move away from the worst option of all – the status quo – that is jeopardizing the USF which is critical to connecting our nation,” the report said.

John Windhausen, executive director of SHLB, echoed the sentiments expressed by Mattey in her report, “We simply must put the USF funding mechanism on a more stable and sustainable path,” he said, “[in order to] strengthen our national commitment to broadband equity for all.”

Mattey report uniform with current recommendations

Mattey’s research is generally in line with proponents of change to the USF. Some have recommended that the fund draw from general broadband revenues, while others have said general taxation would provide a longer lasting solution. Even FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr suggested that Big Tech be forced to contribute to the system it benefits from, which the acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said is an “intriguing” idea.

The FCC instituted the USF in 1997 as a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The fund was designed to encourage the development of telecom infrastructure across the U.S.—dispensing billions of dollars every year to advance the goal of universal connectivity. It does so through four programs: the Connect America Fund, Lifeline, the rural health care program, and E-Rate.

These constituent programs address specific areas related for broadband. For example, the E-Rate program is primarily concerned with ensuring that schools and libraries are sufficiently equipped with internet and technology assistance to serve their students and communities. All of these programs derive their funding from the USF.

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Digital Inclusion

Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.

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Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chair Kim Keenan

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for outreach.

“There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.

She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.

“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.

EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion

Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.

“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.

She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.

“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”

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