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Broadband's Impact

Bob Frankston: From Net Neutrality to Seizing Opportunity for New Networks

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Network neutrality is an important issue. We mustn’t allow transport owners to limit our ability to communicate. But, network neutrality in itself positions the internet as a telecommunications service. We need to step back and recognize that the internet itself is part of a larger shift wrought by software.

I thought about this more when I found myself in my hospital room (after knee surgery) unable to open and close the shades by myself. But yet I could control the lights in my house!

A recuperation aided by carefully architecting home lighting to maximize existing technologies

It wasn’t simply that I built a one off special case but rather I carefully architected my home lighting control implementation to minimize the inter-dependencies while taking advantage of existing technologies.

For example, to the extent I could, I avoided depending on the accidental properties of silos such as Zigbee. I normalized any transport to simple packets. This is how the internet works – it normalizes the underlying infrastructure to IP, so I don’t care if a particular segment is asynchronous time-division multiplexing or cellular. I can use the same technique as in tunneling internet protocol through Bluetooth using the general serial protocols.

Software has given us the ability to stitch things together. In designing (and redesigning) applications we have also gained an understanding of the importance of (dynamic) architectural boundaries that minimize coupling (or entanglement).

Thus, with an IP connection I could insert shims (or workarounds, as long as they preserve the architectural integrity) such as network address translations or, indeed, treat the entire telecom system as a simple link. I can normalize this by overlaying my own IP connection on top of what I find, including existing IP connections (as we do with virtual private networks). This allows us to implement and then evolve systems as we improve our understanding.

Modern broadband networking is not like the old telecom paradigm

In the telecom paradigm I’d have to rely on the network to assure a path from my phone to a device in my house as a virtual wire. But in the new paradigm we have relationships that are abstract. We can represent the relationship “[a, b]” where a is the app element and b is the device (or virtual device).

It needn’t involve a physical wire. The network connection is not a layer but simply one resource I can use. It does require thinking differently and discovering what is possible rather than having rigid requirements. Though I avoid depending on a provider’s promises, I may be limited by policies that second-guess what I’m doing.

This is why neutrality is an important principle. That includes not doing me favors by second-guessing my needs and thus working at cross purposes as I innovate outside their design point. A better term is “indifference,” because the intermediaries don’t know my intent and thus can’t play favorites.

Paywalls and security barriers make it hard or impossible for open applications to work

More important is that it means that paywalls and security barriers may make it impossible for my application to work. I had to manually intervene to use the hospital’s Wi-Fi connection. I can do that in simple cases, so we assume that status quo is fine, but it is a fatal barrier for “just works’ connectivity.

As with any new paradigm it is difficult to explain because our very language embeds implicit assumptions. It also means that often those most expert in network architecture can get lost in their expertise. In the case of the internet I see this in the idea of end points identifiers being IP addresses assigned by network operators.

As one who takes advantage of the opportunities I find lying around, I view networks as just a means and try to program around limits. If the opportunities aren’t available, I can create my own.

The next version of internet protocol will provide new opportunities

One example is IPv6. Version 6 would make it easier to make a direct connection between two end points. But in its absence, I can cobble together a path using IPv4. This is one reason V6 adoption has been slow – we’ve been able to program around it, so it is nice but not necessary.

Of course, we do want to create opportunity. One such opportunity I call ambient connectivity – the ability to assume connectivity. This doesn’t mean there is always a way to connect but rather I separate out the problem of achieving connectivity from how we implement it.

It’s simple to think of providing connectivity using Wi-Fi but it’s not about Wi-Fi per se and it’s not about a mesh because it doesn’t matter how it’s implemented. Those are just examples. It’s about architecture and not the accidental properties of radios or wires.

It’s also about economics because the architectural separation means we can’t pay for the infrastructure by setting a price based on the value of the service because we just see raw bits out of context.

Devices and open interfaces remain a key part of the new networking equation

And it’s not just about networks. It’s about devices that have open interfaces. It’s about thinking about devices that can exist for a purpose but also have open interfaces that allow me – or you! – to use them as components. It is about devices and protocols that are smart but not so smart that they build in assumptions.

This is why Bluetooth is a problem: It is very tuned to use cases and protocols and limits me to a proximate relationship rather than factoring out distance.

It would be great to have a discussion of this new world that centers around relationships (binding) and software and creating reusable objects. We understand that meaning is not intrinsic. When we sit on a box it becomes a chair.

What is new is that we can use software to define (or redefine) what something is. A portable computing device is a telephone in the sense that it can run a telephony application. This is a sharp departure from the notion that a device is a telephone because it was built for that purpose.

Network neutrality will be increasingly hard to define when we aren’t using the services of network providers

Today’s internet is one byproduct in multiple senses. One is that we don’t need to build a physical network for one purpose. Another is that we don’t depend on networking as a service but simply ask for disparate facilities providers to help packets move ahead like a highway facilitates driving but doesn’t provide the rides themselves.

It’s also why we don’t apply common carriage to roads because they are inherently neutral in not knowing the drivers’ intent. It’s why network neutrality is a fine principle but is hard to define once we aren’t depending on network providers’ services.

It would be great to have a conversation about these big ideas. And part of it is also rethinking the internet. The particular protocols such as TCP are valuable, but we need to see them in context as means and not as rigid requirements.

The internet is just one example of what we can create when we have opportunity. Imagine what else we can do given opportunities.

Network neutrality is about networks. As I wrote in this space last December, we need to move on to just assuming connectivity as mundane infrastructure We can then shift our attention how to create and to what we do with the new opportunities.

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. Read more at frankston.comhttps://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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