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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.

Digital Inclusion

Rosenworcel Hails FCC’s Efforts on Mapping, Said Country Needs More Wi-Fi Access

Rosenworcel also emphasized spectrum policy and getting connectivity to low-income Americans.

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FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

WASHINGTON, October 27, 2021 ­– Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Friday she is optimistic about the agency’s direction on new broadband mapping efforts and said the testing of the project has produced the best wireless coverage map in the country.

Speaking at the Marconi Society Symposium Friday, Rosenworcel said the mapping efforts are part driven by crowdsourced methods that she credited as a valuable way to ensure the maps are as accurate as possible.

The new maps are a product of the Broadband DATA Act, which is set to expand mapping efforts to make them more precise. The current mapping method, which uses Form 477 data, has led some companies to bid for federal funding in areas that are already served. The FCC is currently cleaning up the results of the $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund due to those errors.

Rosenworcel emphasizes spectrum policy

Additionally, Rosenworcel emphasized the need to improve spectrum policy. She suggested that this take place by making sure consumers benefit from competitive FCC auctions and placing more Wi-Fi access in locations where licensed airwaves see low usage.

Industry experts at the event stressed challenges that must be addressed in order to expand broadband access, such as the fact that low-income individuals will often reject offers to receive free internet. This happens because the individuals think that a free service will be low quality or that they will be tricked into paying for the service in the future.

During one panel, professor Margaret Martonosi of Princeton University explained the importance of realizing that utility functions present in rich and poor service markets are different, meaning that the appetite for internet service in richer communities is different from the appetite in poorer ones.

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Digital Inclusion

Catherine McNally: The Digital Divide is an Equality Issue

To work toward equal access, more affordable options must be created, including community-based solutions.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Catherine McNally, editorial lead for Reviews.org

Per the latest U.S. Census numbers, about one in four American households is stuck without internet. And a quarter million people with home internet still listen to the dial up screech when they hop online.

The majority of folks lacking home internet live in states with large rural populations and high rural poverty rates, like Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.

In Mississippi, as an example, 60% of homes don’t have broadband, satellite or dial up. And 53% of the state’s population is considered rural with a rural poverty rate of 23%.

Limited options and slow speeds top the list of reasons why rural states are home to high numbers of disconnected households. But steep costs are the most imminent barrier to home internet in rural areas.

According to a 2020 report on worldwide internet pricing by Cable.co.uk, the U.S. is the most expensive country for internet out of all developed Western nations. Here, internet costs an average of $60 a month. Internet in the cheapest country, Ukraine, costs an average of $6.40 a month.

Digital divide deep dive: Issaquena County, Mississippi

Issaquena County is Mississippi’s least-connected county with only 20% of homes paying for an internet connection. The median income there is $14,154 per individual in 2019, compared to a $31,133 national median income. The overall poverty rate in the county is 29%, which is about 16% higher than the U.S. as a whole.

That is a glaring contrast to the most-connected county in the most-connected state: Morgan County, Utah. Morgan County is home to 95% of households with an internet connection, the median individual income there was $37,091 in 2019 and the overall poverty rate is 3%.

Residents of Issaquena County are lucky if they can get download speeds of 25 Mbps, which is the Federal Communication Commission’s current definition of “high speed internet.” The slowest speeds available, 5–12 Mbps, are barely enough to stream in HD, let alone connect to a Zoom call.

If we narrow down our view to Valley Park, a town of just over 100 people in Issaquena County, we see that some residents have the option of a single AT&T DSL internet plan.

The AT&T plan costs $660 a year for speeds of 25 Mbps, which barely keep up with critical modern-day online tools like online learning and telehealth.

Our case study of Issaquena County and Valley Park, Mississippi, highlights further opportunities tied to home connectivity and equality:

  • Access to online learning. About 23.7% of Issaquena County residents have obtained a high school degree, while 3.2% have no schooling. Online education allows individuals to expand their knowledge and further their careers.
  • Greater access to livable wages.5% of residents earn a household income of $10k or less. This is further divided by race: In 2019, Black and African American residents earned a median household income of $21,146, while white residents earned a median household income of $52,188.
  • More employment opportunities. The employment rate in Issaquena County has steadily declined since 1990. Now, 10.6% of residents are considered unemployed.
  • Better access to health care. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration found that half of Mississippi’s residents live in counties with more than 2,000 patients per primary care physician. Issaquena County has been designated a Medically Underserved Area since 1978, meaning the county has a shortage of primary care, dental and/or mental health providers. Better access to telehealth also enables residents who cannot make the drive to the nearest hospital or clinic.

Solving the digital divide

To work toward equal access, more affordable options must be created. The Emergency Broadband Benefit fund is one option, but it remains largely untapped by American households. Subsidies like Lifeline may also lower barriers to internet access, but participation remains low.

Community-focused solutions are likely a better answer, such as Land O’Lakes’s American Connection Project. The project opened more than 2,800 free public Wi-Fi locations in spots like the Tractor Supply Store in Spooner, Wisconsin, in order to keep farming communities connected.

Also significant is this year’s infrastructure bill, which calls on states to determine localized needs and strategies for improving affordability and access to the internet.

State sponsored projects may also solve the severe lack of competition between U.S. broadband services. This should reduce costs last-mile providers incur to connect to middle-mile networks, which could, and should, pass savings down to households. Case in point: California recently introduced an open access middle-mile project with the goal of providing nondiscriminatory access. The bill passed unanimously.

A modernized definition of what qualifies as “high speed internet” would also benefit rural households. Currently, the standard of 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds shorts rural users of opportunities tied to telehealth, online learning and remote work.

This outdated definition allows service providers to complete minimum-viable network expansions and mark areas as “connected.” It also de-incentivizes providers to improve existing-but-subpar networks, such as the 10 Mbps DSL line I found offered in nearby Morton, Mississippi.

One thing is clear: The way the U.S. has approached internet access in the past does not work. New strategies and policies are required to repair the digital divide. Internet access is a right, not a privilege in today’s world.

Catherine McNally is an Editorial Lead for Reviews.org, where she reviews internet service providers across the US. She has a passion for using data to highlight the need for better internet access across the US and believes that internet is a critical lifeline in today’s world. She has also published speed test and pricing reports to help everyday consumers make informed decisions. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Education

National Non-Profit to Launch Joint Initiative to Close Broadband Affordability and Homework Gap

EducationSuperHighway is signing up partners and will launch November 4.

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Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of Education Super Highway.

WASHINGTON, October 18, 2021 – National non-profit Education Super Highway is set to launch a campaign next month that will work with internet service providers to identify students without broadband and expand programs that will help connect the unconnected.

On November 4, the No Home Left Offline initiative will launch to close the digital divide for 18 million American households that “have access to the Internet but can’t afford to connect,” according to a Monday press release.

The campaign will publish a detailed report with “crucial data insights into the broadband affordability gap and the opportunities that exist to close it,” use data to identify unconnected households and students, and launch broadband adoption and free apartment Wi-Fi programs in Washington D.C.

The non-profit and ISPs will share information confidentially to identify students without broadband at home and “enable states and school districts to purchase Internet service for families through sponsored service agreements,” the website said.

The initiative will run on five principles: identify student need, have ISPs create sponsored service offerings for school districts or other entities, set eligibility standards, minimize the amount of information necessary to sign up families, and protect privacy.

The non-profit said 82 percent of Washington D.C.’s total unconnected households – a total of just over 100,000 people – have access to the internet but can’t afford to connect.

“This ‘broadband affordability gap’ keeps 47 million Americans offline, is present in every state, and disproportionately impacts low-income, Black, and Latinx communities,” the release said. “Without high-speed Internet access at home, families in Washington DC can’t send their children to school, work remotely, or access healthcare, job training, the social safety net, or critical government services.”

Over 120 regional and national carriers have signed up for the initiative.

The initiative is another in a national effort to close the “homework gap.” The Federal Communications Commission is connected schools, libraries and students using money from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is subsidizing devices and connections. It has received $5 billion in requested funds in just round one.

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