The FCC and the Giant Zero

So here’s the concept: the end-to-end nature of the Internet is not about “access for consumers”. It’s about creating a in which all of us are at zero functional distance from each other — or close enough. That’s why I can listen in on the hearing right now from London, and IM and IRC with people all over the world. Right now, in real-enough time.

The Internet is the universal communications utility that connects us all. As a utility it will, in the long run, come to resemble roads and water systems — in the sense that all of us can connect to it, and to each other over it. The questions that matter most are the ones with answers that get us to this end state.

Right now they’re talking about competition. Two years ago at F2C, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell said that, as a former antitrust lawyer, he favored the “rule of threes” — that is, you tend to get productive compeitition when there are at least three competitors in a marketplace.

We have that at our home near Cambridge. We have Verizon FiOS, RCN and Comcast, all on the poles. The first two bring fiber to the home, and the third has a hybrid fiber coax (HFC) system, that brings coax to the home. Near as I can tell, the only one of those three bothering to compete for the Internet customer is Verizon, although its offering is hardly optimized. No “20 up, 20 down”, as I just heard somebody brag about in the ‘cast. (Was that Tom Tauke from Verizon? Think so.) We get 20 down, 5 up. Right now, if I want non-crippled service (one where I can run a server, for example, with my own IP addresses), I have to pay “business” rates, which are, in the phone company tradition, and without respect to whatever the actual costs are, a multiple of what I pay as a household — a consumer.

All three are going after TV customers primarily — trying to horn into each other’s cable TV business — and treating Internet as gravy on TV and phone service. That makes sense for providers of all three services, on a national basis, but not at the local level, where there is enormous room for innovation and real competition.

Message to Verizon and the rest: the Internet is not about “consumer choice”. We produce as well as consume. We need to be able to run our own servers. We need to be able to exercize supply as well as demand. We need symmetricality, not just neutrality.

It is essential not to frame the Net in FCC terms, or even in communications policy and law terms, which date back to the 1934 act, and beyond that to railroads. Or at least not those alone. The Net is a place, not just a shipping system for “content”, to which “the consumer” should have “access”.

Lot of back and forth about whether or not Comcast blocked BitTorrent. FWIW, I think that::: a) Comcast is still mostly right about the best efforts it makes, but is still weaseling a little bit; b) Comcast’s opponents are looking to paint its kettle black; and c) Talking about it soaks up too much time that would be better spent debating other subjects.

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  1. Carter F Smith’s avatar

    Good post — it’s been added to The Conversation on Comcast, which for starters is occurring mostly on Facebook –

  2. Toby Moores’s avatar

    …the Internet is not about “consumer choice”. We produce as well as consume …

    It is interesting to note that years after Alvin Toffler coined the term prosumer, we are moving substantially in to that era. Andriod for phones and the PS3/XBOX 360 are bringing real (nearly open) intelligence to the cell and TV. Triple play will soon be about Prosumer Choice. Perhaps this is the new rule of threes – prosumption above the level of a single device

  3. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    re: “We need symmetricality, not just neutrality.”

    I wouldn’t doubt that studies would show a correlation between download bandwidth and consumption.

    I’m just skeptical about any strong correlation between upload bandwidth and production. I would wager that that is very slight (the ISP’s certainly have this data.)

    I’m on Speakeasy ADSL, using 1.5d/384u. If I wanted to double the upwidth, it’s an additional $30. Since it’s very rare that I get an A-List hit sending tons of traffic my way, I can live with that speed. My biggest datasuckers are RSS and robots (if I want to offload RSS, I can pay for that too…) My Mozy upload? Well, that happens overnight when I’m not using the computer.

    But how many of these citizen-producers are hosting their own stuff? Your site is on My Dad has a radio show on local radio, and he was able to get the rights to stream it online, so I set that up for him– offsite. The cost of the hosting amounts to snack money. There’s no reason for him to be serving audio off his home PC. Yes, it takes a five minutes to upload the 60-minute audio clip to the host (but it takes longer to convert the WMV to MP3). So, while it uploads, we chat on the phone. Yes, the desktop sharing software needs upload bandwidth. But it’s more of a drain on the processor.

    I don’t doubt that there *are* people hosting their own servers who are serving unique content and aren’t being served. But the “give us more” crowd needs to do a better job of finding these examples.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar


    You’re right that the desire for home servers alone is insufficient justification for system-wide provisioning of symmetrical service. But so also is basing provisioning speeds and features on current usage alone, which takes place entirely within the restrictions already imposed.

    Yes, the carriers pay attention to usage, but much potential usage is prevented by existing provisioning. A guy from my Santa Barbara provider, Cox, once told a room full of local citizens, most of them techies working in the computing, networking and entertainment business, that there was no need for upstream speed increases because they haven’t measured any demand for it. This was when they were allowing no more than ~350kbps upstream speed, and many in the room had already told the guy that they had to go to distant offices (Hollywood, in the case of entertainment guys) or Starbucks, or some other place, to get the upstream bandwidth they needed for their work. When Cox was pressed on the matter, they said it came down to primary usage of their network, which was television. The internet is secondary for them.

    As more individuals and companies take advantage of web services such ad Amazon’s S3 (storage) and EC2 (compute power), the need for fat symmetrical service will increase. So will the need for ordinary citizens to upload HD movies of their own creation, to wherever. Provisioning of services on the model of TV demand imagined in the mid 90s is not only antique but restrictive of innovation anywhere outside the carriers themselves. And that’s what’s at stake here.

    Check out Their business is selling systems that provide remote storage with local cacheing built to work around the asymmetrical provisioning of nearly all carriers. Can the carriers measure the actual usage here? Only if they notice huge spikes in uploads in the middle of the night. And I kinda doubt most of them are paying close attention.

    The problem we have now is that the “give us more crowd” is largely ignored by the carriers. Whether the need is for home servers or the need to do live CGI over fat pipes, or remote storage, or whatever, the need is real. The demand is real. And most of the carriers are doing their best to ignore it.

    Doesn’t mean I favor more carrier regulation, by the way. Does mean I want to see the market for networking opened up, and cut free from the regulatory regime that has been around far longer than most of us have been alive.

  5. Jon Garfunkel’s avatar

    re: The problem we have now is that the “give us more crowd” is largely ignored by the carriers.

    Sounds like a problem for VRM to solve! Register a website called or something. Mashup with the appropriate mapping tool. Have people post if they have general bandwidth needs or specific latency complaints. Shoot, I’d post when my Comcast DTV signal gets lossy. As they rallied in ancient Rome: e pluribus unum! e pluribus unum!

    (After a while, Verizon’s FIOS marketing unit will fund the site. Yes, at the core I agree with you on on Cluetrain/VRM — if you don’t know what the customers want, just *ask* them openly. 🙂

  6. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I’ve got about 120 Gigabytes of photos and video I want to put on Flickr and YouTube… there’s no way I’m going to attempt that with any of the existing connections available to me. The cable company at home would kick me off as a suspected pirate (though I have to cutlass and am not good at sea)… and the connection at work is only 3.5 Mbps on a good day.

    We gave the telcos 20 Billion build fiber to us… and we got bubkes.

  7. Carter f Smith’s avatar

    I really don’t think there’s a whole lot of long-term support for Net Neutrality, but it sure does make for some interesting dialog. As the Internet forms and transforms, so many people have so many views on what should be and what will be. These often conflicting and usually opposing views seem to miss the reality of what the Internet and Neutrality is all about.

    The premise of neutrality is objectivity, or freedom from bias.

    The premise of Net Neutrality is the absence of restrictions by those providing access on those for whom the access is provided.

    If this sounds like the western expansion in the United States (and other countries before it), or if someone has burdened you with the metaphor of Internet expansion as space exploration, that’s because we, as humans, have the need to relate new things to old paradigms. If we are looking for something to really relate this to, it’s pretty simple . . . the Internet is like Utopia!

  8. Keith Dick’s avatar

    Mike: I think you dropped a zero. At least the number I believe I’ve frequently seen cited as the amount of money we gave the industry for build-out of high-speed service is $200 billion, not the $20 billion you mentioned.

    Am I remembering the amount incorrectly? Or have I been reading incorrect statements?

  9. Slamlander’s avatar

    Just one itty-bitty point:

    You can run servers behind almost any IP lash up.

    I have BlueWin.CH ADSL w/ dynamic IP and my external DNS services are handled by DynDNS.Org. I have four servers (Win2KAS) providing a number of services.

    Of course the problem is ComCast, which contractually prohibits users from doing such things. However, that does not mean that it cannot be done. I worked on the HFC system for PacBell (before SBC), HFC can deliver awesome bandwidth and with no real congestion problems, if built correctly (for various flavors of ”Correctly”). Yes, ComCast is either lying or has incompetent engineers.

  10. » Blog Archive » The continuing debate about Net Neutrality’s avatar

    […] (a good thing), and I think one of the most important (yet simple) observations recently made is by Doc Searls: We need symmetricality, not just […]

  11. New Paradigm Emerging |gangbuster’s avatar

    […] to be open source, to eliminate silo lock-in, as well as retain a carbon-copy of our gestures and “prosumption,” a term Doc Searl’s came up with to identify the fact that we produce and consume. It is the very nature of the […]

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    True, it can be done.

    To be fair, and welcoming of change, I should mention that since the hearing on Monday I have had a number of direct and indirect contacts with clueful Comcast folks who are very eager to move on to better and more productive relationships with customers. And I’m eager to get back next week so I can follow up on some of those.

  13. Vasco Névoa’s avatar

    Now imagine my frustration: here in Portugal, the maximum upload bandwidth you can buy as a home consumer is 512 kb/s.
    All ISPs make sure to offer the exact same max “up”, while competing solely on the basis of “down” speed versus cost.
    The asymmetry here is so damn screamingly obvious that it is in fact invisible.
    This creates incredibly asymmetric offers such as the xDSL 24 Mb/s “down” with the same old 0.5 Mb/s “up”, a down/up ratio of 48 times.
    If there was ever a walled garden in the telco bizz, we’re it!
    How the heck are we going to change people’s mentalities, when they still think 3-play is the hottest thing around and that “one-size-fits-all” service set-top-boxes are the way of the future???
    Pfff!… wish I was there, dudes.

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