Broadband vs. Internet

By design, the Internet supports everything you can do with it. As deployed, it is no more capable than the infrastructures that carry it. Here in the U.S. most of the infrastructures that carry the Internet are owned by telephone and cable companies. Those companies are not only in a position to limit use of the Internet for purposes other than those they favor, but to reduce the Net itself to something less, called “broadband.” In fact, they’ve been working hard on both.

We’ll talk about broadband shortly. But first let’s look at the clobbering the Internet took last week when Verizon, the only large provider of fiber optic Internet connections to homes in the U.S., put an end to expansion of FiOS, their fiber-to-the-home telephone, Internet and cable TV system.

This matters hugely, because the connections with the greatest data-carrying capacities are fiber optic ones. In terms of raw capacity, cable TV and copper telephone lines can’t compete. But then, they don’t need to compete if fiber is off the table as a competitor. That’s what Verizon just did.

In speedtestVerizon ends satellite deal, FiOS expansion as it partners with cable, Cecelia Kang reports in the Washington Post that the telco giant “will stop its buildout of FiOS television and Internet services in the next couple years.”

When a company says they plan to stop growing a business, they mean they have given up on it. (Hey, what business, especially a big one, doesn’t want to grow?) It’s also often a sign that the business is for sale, in this case probably to competitors in the cable business. Clues in that direction come from Cecelia’s following sentence: “The moves come as Verizon Wireless forges a new partnership with cable giants to cross-market phone, video, Internet and cellular services.” In that piece, she says “Verizon will pay $3.6 billion to Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks to use a swath of cellphone airwaves that the cable giants own but do not use.”

At the business +/vs. business level, here’s how it sorts out (to me, at least):

  1. Verizon was never a cable TV company, and didn’t do a good-enough job at that with FiOS. Straight-up, it should have beaten the crap out of all its cable competitors, just based on superior video and a much higher channel count, thanks to fiber’s much higher data capacity. But Comcast and the others — even Dish Network and DirectTV — were better at the cable game. But Verizon is king of the hill in cellular wireless, with the best coverage and service in most cities. (See the latest Consumer Reports for details.) A lot of what used to be TV is moving to wireless, both over cellular connections and wi-fi. In cellular, Verizon holds aces.
  2. Cable has no cellular wireless business, and its auction winnings for spectrum haven’t yet yet paid off. But the spectrum is worth money to rent out, in ways that get cable into the cellular wireless business, so they can now sell “quadruple play” — cable TV, landline phone, Internet (increasingly called “broadband”… more about that below) and cellular.
  3. Verizon (along with cable, satellite, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and everybody else) wants to be in the “content distribution” game, which is the future of television, publishing and every other business the Internet has both threatened and transformed.
  4. For the most popular technically demanding “content” — video — 100Mbps downstream is enough. You don’t need fiber for that. Cable can do the job well enough. For DVD-quality video (such as Netflix and TV from Google and Apple) it already is.
  5. TV is body-snatching personal computing, and it’s good to get in on progress there. Take a look at all the cheap screens you can buy now at Cosco and Staples. Their default dimensions are 1920 x 1080: the native resolution of HDTV.
  6. As an informal quid pro quo with the cable companies, Verizon agreed to halt FiOS expansion. Don’t be surprised to see Verizon’s whole FiOS business leased or sold off to a cable competitor in the next few months or years. We’ll all be better off if it gets sold to Google or Apple, but that’s unlikely to happen.

The deal sucks for everything and everybody outside the content distro business, including the rest of the Internet. The sum of the lost or prevented business (and social benefits as well) is incalculable. But nobody seems to be counting. We’re just boiling frogs here.

As of today, your chance of getting fiber to your home is zero, unless you are lucky enough to live in LafayetteChatanoogaPulaski, or one of too-few other places where public and private interests align long enough for fiber service to get built out before brutal opposition by phone and cable companies prevents it — mostly by lobbying up state regulations making build-out difficult or impossible for entities other than phone and cable companies that aren’t going to bother building what they’ve already prevented anyway.

The appetite for fiber is there. We chose to rent our part-time apartment here near Boston because the street is served by FiOS. (Also RCN, a weaker fiber competitor.) Many businesses see places like the towns listed above as port cities on the Internet’s sea of bits.  The speedtest above is typical of what we get from FiOS, which offers speeds up to 150Mbps down and 50Mbps up. Fiber’s native capacity is actually much higher, which is why Chatanooga offers up to 1Gbps, as will Google’s new project in Kansas City. If you live in one of fourteen Utah cities fibered up by Utopia, you have a choice of providers of 100Mbps symmetrical service that will cost you less than what I pay ($70/mo) for my 25Mbps from Verizon.

Last I heard, the fastest cable offering in the upstream direction was 12Mbps. Cox, our cable provider in Santa Barbara, gives us about 25Mbps down, but only 4Mbps up. Last time I talked to them (in June 2009), their plan was to deliver up to 100Mbps down eventually, but still only about 5Mbps up. That’s competitive as long as all you want is “content delivery.” But what about when you want to live “in the cloud,” and all your data is elsewhere? In the long run you’ll need a lot more upstream as well as downstream capacity for that. Internet service optimized for media delivery (where TV especially wants to go) won’t cut it. But then, most people aren’t looking at that. They’re looking at TV on their iPads over broadband, and thinking that’s way cool enough.

So here we are, smack up against what John Perry Barlow warned us about in Death From Above, way back in early 1995. There he wrote, “The cable companies and Baby Bells have a model for developing the next phase of telecom infrastructure which, were it applied to the design of physical superhighways, would have us building them with about five thousand lanes in one direction and one lane in the other.”

Internet speeds over cable aren’t that lopsided, but they are that biased. And the name for that bias is broadband. So let’s look at the difference between the Internet and broadband, because that difference matters.

While the Internet is often called a “network of networks,” what defines the “network of” is a suite of protocols and standards that transcend individual networks and give the whole a single and coherent way of working. Broadband is an old telecommunications term which, as Wikipedia puts it, “became popularized through the 1990s as a vague marketing term for Internet access.”

The Internet’s protocols are NEA:

  • Nobody owns them.*
  • Everybody can use them, and
  • Anybody can improve them.

Like the periodic table, the Net’s protocols occur in nature — in this case a human one — which is why the Net’s founding capacities can be limitless in size and scope.

For business this means the Net and the Web (which is an application on the Net) are building materials with leverage as boundless as those of hydrogen, copper, oxygen, iron and other real-world elements, but without the scarcity. This is why the Net’s open protocols and standards support $trillions in business without making a dime for themselves, and without promoting the wealth-inducing facts of the matter.

We call these kinds of leverage “because effects“: you make money because of them, rather than with them.

But, since the Internet is not out to make money for itself, it is easily dismissed either as passé, or as having little or no business value. This is what George Colony of Forrester Research did in his recent speech at LeWeb, where he spoke about “the death of the Web,” and why I followed up with Be careful what you call dead. Although I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way, George’s speech was a win for the forces out to subordinate the Internet and the Web to their own parochial businesses and business models.

Right now most of us are unaware that this is going on, and fail to see the risk it presents for everybody who depends on a capacious Internet for future growth and prosperity.

The phone and cable operators are not working alone to limit the Net’s because effects. At this point their allies include lawmakers, regulators, and professional organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

A subtle and pernicious part of that campaign has been an effort to shift the nobody-owns-it Internet conversation to one about “broadband,” which is something the operators own and rent out. Governments are enlisted in this campaign, and now so are the rest of us. (I’ve used the term “broadband” plenty myself, for example, here.) I began to get hip to this trick in the Summer of 2010, at a conference where a spokesman for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) gave a talk about the goodness of broadband without once uttering the word “Internet.” Recently the ITU has been further sanitizing this rhetorical body-snatch by talking up broadband as a “basic human right”.

Bob Frankston (co-father of spreadsheet software and much more) has been on this case at least since 2009, when he wrote The Broadband Internet? One sample: “Today we are used to the ‘broadband’ Internet in which we achieve connectivity despite the services and twisting passages our connections travel.” Bob’s preference is that we look to maximize connectivity, rather than to increase our dependency on carriers with more interest in maintaining telephony and cable TV service and billing models than in maximizing all the other businesses and business models the Net’s founding protocols were built to support.

The division is between what communications wonks crudely characterize as “net-heads” and “bell-heads.” Think of conflict as one betwee any and only. Net-heads want the Net to support anything. Bell-heads want communications systems optimized only for the businesses they prefer — namely, their own — and to avoid even talking about the Internet. (Bell-heads have never been comfortable with the Net, because it was not made to bill. TV and telephony are easy to bill, and so is “content” in general. Thanks to Apple’s and Google’s pioneering work —mostly in league with the operators — so now are apps.)

To see how sharp this distinction is, read The New Digital Divide, by Susan Crawford, an alpha net-head, in The New York Times. Nowhere in the piece does she use the word “broadband.” She does, however, use the word “Internet” twenty-six times. In his letter to the editor responding to Susan’s piece, Verizon CEO and alpha bell-head Ivan B. Seidenberg uses the term “broadband” six times and  “Internet” just once, and only because he can’t say “The 2011 World Economic Forum global survey ranks the United States first in Internet competition” without it. (One wonders if the U.S. will continue to rank first, now that Verizon has given up on FiOS build-out.)

At this point the only entities still trying to bring fiber to your home are Google in Kansas City, brave small operators such as Vermont’s and some scattered municipalities. Helping where fiber can’t make it (and, in many cases, where broadband can’t either) are Wireless Internet Service Providers, or WISPs. Here’s hoping that these net-headed entities can prove that a wide open and supportive infrastructure for the Internet will do more for business and society than “broadband” alone can provide.

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* Technically, nobody restricts use based on ownership. The Ethernet protocol, for example, succeeded where IBM’s Token Ring and other purely proprietary alternaties failed, because Intel, Digital and Xerox, which owned Ethernet’s patents, chose to to make Ethernet open. There were no restrictions on how hardware manufacturers (who deployed Ethernet) could implement it.


  1. Parrotlover77’s avatar

    Great article.

    While it’s sad in a way to hear FiOS is dying, I’m not exactly mourning. Verizon is a terrible internet access company. Second only in scumminess to AT&T. I’m hoping Google or, preferrably, some third party company with no content delivery verticles, will offer that. Or even more preferrably, community fiber. The telco and cable companies and their lobbyists are strong, but if they get TOO greedy, it could bite them in the butt.

    But even if 100Mbps and 1Gbps connections became common, I still have to put out there: so what? How fast do you need your final mile to be? Servers will still need an order of magnitude MORE than that to actually offer accomodating cloud services if the final mile is so damn fast.

    I would love to live in a world where connections that fast worked that fast with all the cloud services I want to consume, but it’s not really the case. The cloud isn’t powerful enough yet, and may never be if the telcos and cable companies have their way.

    Even worse is that even if you get a massively fast infrastructure, the providers are going to limit the crap out of you. Look at AT&T and Verizon’s LTE networks. Limited to 2GB. 2GB?! Watch a couple good movies and you’re over! That’s crap! Whereas Sprint, being a distant third and needing to remain competitive, offers a slower 4G, but it’s unlimited. WiMax may not be up to LTE, but this goes back to my first question: how fast do you really need your connection to be? I’ll take 10Mbps unlimited to 100Mbps capped any day.

    I’m not sure what the answer is (other than more community owned internet access, which is difficult), but there are a ton of problems right now…

  2. Thomas Kenney’s avatar

    It made me a little suspicious when the govt. shot down LightSquared in a recent test claiming disruption in 75% of GPS receivers. I think the disruption is in the telecom’s plans and they don’t want a new rival.

  3. David Scott Williams’s avatar

    Doc, this was well written.

    Another piece of this puzzle is that many places of this country still don’t have high-speed internet options that are not either -1- satellite and extremely expensive or -2- not existent/extremely shitty.

    It is kind of odd looking back in at a debate that to many of my neighbors would amount to a Lexus vs. Infiniti debate when the predominant mode of travel is scooter and bicycle ;)… But you have drawn very important points — what happens at the port cities _eventually_ filters down to the outliers … and if the flow there sucks, we’re choking out here.

    Thanks, and as always, link heavy, giving me additional fodder for educating myself further,


  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Parrotlover77, I’m certainly not excusing Verizon of its suckitude, which — fwiw — is quite uneven. I have to say that service from Verizon FiOS has been exemplary. Of the few dealings I’ve had with them for tech support, the person on the other end was more than knowledgeable, and in at least one case was an expert engineer (who had no kind words for the marketing types that chose service levels and what to charge for them). Also, back when I had Verizon as a mobile service provider, they were pretty good, at least when compared to others I had used.

    But some of your arguments against the need for higher speeds are the same as used against the Net and the Web before they became widely used. Who really needs open and non-proprietary email when we’ve got good-enough from AOL and Compuserve? Who needs video on the Web when we’ve got television?

    As for data caps, I’ve had plenty of experience with those. Check out this one with Sprint. And now Sprint, of all companies, is offering unlimited data again.

    The main problem, as Bob Frankston will tell us, is that we’re all bell-heads in our own ways, as long as we frame the network in terms provided by businesses whose founding concepts, billing systems and collusion with goverment are inherited from telegraphy, the post office and railroads.

    You’re right that there are a ton of problems right now. In fact, that’s an understatement. What I’m trying to do with this piece (which I’m still tweaking) is bring out one among many of those problems.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    David, you’re right that it’s easy to get caught up in the Lexus vs. Infiniti argument (hey, we loved our old ’92 Infiniti Q45, before it died) when most of the world is debating bicycles vs. scooters. My point, as I’m sure you know, is that the FiOS canary just died in the Big Operator coal mine, and this is a matter of import for the future of the Net in general, at least here in the U.S.

    And again, to leverage Bob Frankston (who I invite to weigh in here with pointage to a few of his many writings on the topics raised), speeds themselves are also something of a red herring. What matters is being able to connect at all, and to be able to build our own infrastructure and not just wait for the providers of self-interested legacy systems and their friends in government to do it for us. That’s why the WISPs and small-time fiber (and other) network builders matter so much. It’s also why de-corrupting Congress, state legislatures and state Public Utilities Commissions is so important.

  6. David Scott Williams’s avatar

    Yeah .. there are too many moving parts … I wonder if that is by design?

  7. Br.Bill’s avatar

    I also have had exemplary service with FiOS, and was hugely disappointed when I had to move away and into an area where Comcast was the only game in town. To hear complaints about Verizon’s broadband service surprises me very much.

    I can’t speak of the experience others have had, but as I said, Verizon’s Internet service was superb with my FiOS account. I would buy it again in a second, were it to become available. I’d pay a 20% premium to have it in my area — it was that good. Download speeds were always as advertised — at minimum — and often faster. No data cap. No limits, no rules against hosting web sites from my home, nothing to complain about, ever, and only one single data outage in 4 years: An idiot plumber cut through my clearly marked fiber and Verizon replaced it the next day, which was July 4th, a holiday. On two different occasions I called to ask about particular upgrade offers and they notified my that my data speeds were being increased for free, negating the need for me to upgrade anything.

    Comcast, by comparison, is slow, doesn’t come close to the advertised speed over 80% of the time, caps me at 250GB a month, disallows web hosting from a residential account, charges more for the same claimed data speeds, doesn’t offer options that are nearly as fast, and had me stay at home from work for a whole day to be there for a service tech who never showed and never called.

    The other option in my area is CenturyLink (formerly Qwest). They advertise me to death but the only thing they’re offering me is DSL, which is useless compared to my data requirements. Just watching Netflix or Slingbox content in hi-def would bring a DSL connection to its knees.

  8. Anthony Rogan’s avatar

    Which is exactly why the Australian Government has taken fibre-optic broadband out of the hands of the private TELCO’s who were limiting people’s Internet choices. Private/free enterprise is rapidly being seen for what it is – greedy, dumb and rapidly going out of public favour since the GFC.

  9. Robert P Bates’s avatar

    I Retired from Verizon in 1992. At that time their were three business objectives in place. First was video on demand. Took 15 years but it is here now. Second was get third party phone companies out of the Central offices (they were granted permission by FCC to use Verizon cable by FCC). Third was to get the internet deployed. The whole Idea of FIOS was to move all Verizon’s services to fiber. Then Verizon could abandon all that copper they had out there that they had spent over 70 years deploying nationwide. The bogey was to keep fiber to the home cost under .22 cents per foot. We will have fiber to every household in the next 20 years. A couple of things have to happen first. One is the closure of ALL wireless services. It is coming as more and more folks realize that the frequencies being used are HEALTH hazord’s. So as ALL WIFI/CELLUAR services are abandoned what is left? Wire and fiber. I know the marketing types want to get these services out there NOW, but they better look 10-15 years down the road at what the infrastructure is going to be. Paitents is a virtue. I have been working on this for 50+ years. All great things happen in time
    Bob Bates

  10. Cincinnati Kid’s avatar

    I believe as Bob put it “All great things happen in time”, although sometimes we would like them to happen a little faster than they going! Interesting point about the frequency being a health hazard..kinda scary:(

  11. Levi C. Maaia’s avatar

    From my perspective working at a small ISP, our speeds are limited mostly by the throughput in the mysterious “cloud.” We deliver 16 Mbps to a customer but even at our NOC we can’t get more than a few hundred kbps from some servers (iTunes Store, YouTube, Our doublewide side streets are clear, plowed and ready for traffic, but the Interstates are jammed! We need a backbone overhaul, routing optimization and better technical standards to go along with last mile improvements or data throughput growth will stall or even move backward.

  12. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    Two things, Doc: 1) I think that people use “broadband” with two meanings: a) as a contraction of “broadband Internet” as distinguished from “dialup Internet” or “satellite Internet”, and b) as a way of selling people something that looks like the Internet, but comes with bundles proprietary services like movies, television, and radio.

    2) We just got FTTH here! got an RUS grant/loan to run fiber everywhere there wasn’t already broadband Internet in Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties. Lucky for me, they lit up my area first. And … they only have up to 15Mbps down / 5 Mbps up on the price list, but they can provision 100Mbps.

  13. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Hey, Doc: Love the way you’ve gotten into the ISP-bashing businesss.

  14. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Glad to hear it, Russ. Is the reason they haven’t offered faster speeds their constraint by transit to the backbone? I believe that was the reason Burlington Telecom limited their offerning to 8/8Mbps symmetrical for a number of years. (I see by that last link that they’re up to 20/20 now.)

  15. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Among other things, Doc, you praise Google shill Susan Crawford and her patently false, misleading, and hateful article in the Times. (Appallingly, Crawford also told these same lies to Congress — a crime — so she must be getting paid very well by her corporate masters to do so.) And you, above, reserve WISPs like myself only for places where “the fiber can’t go.” Well, I have news for you: my WISP actually has more subscribers where the fiber DOES go than where it doesn’t, because we offer superior service throughout our entire service area. Your further claim — again, falsely — that municipal networks, which are not financially viable without taxpayer subsidy, are somehow superior to the networks which are built by hard working private ISPs such as myself. Well, I have news for you, Doc: I built my network with my own sweat, tears, and blood. I’ve put my life’s savings into it. And I’ll be damned if the government is going to come in and engage in predatory business practices such as horizontal monopoly leverage (because that’s what it is when a municipality gets into the broadband business) to destroy private enterprise. Shame on you for advocating such things.

  16. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks for clarifying that, Brett.

  17. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    I think they aren’t sure how to price it. They’re currently selling all-you-can-eat connections, and 100Mbps could consume a considerable fraction of their GigE connection. They want people to actually be able to get the bandwidth they’re paying for, particularly since they’re selling at multiple price points.

  18. Barbra @ Write A Bio’s avatar

    As a small-town Canadian who enjoys lightening fast internet service, I’ve always found it hard to understand why the same service is not available in all areas of the U.S.

  19. DoubleAught Code’s avatar

    Im so happy to live in a town that just agreed to finish laying fiber to EVERY resident. Not only is it faster, its more secure. No daisy chain networking expecting smart folks to not know how to order a haked modem that can surf all nodes below it!!!

    I get 50 Mbps and thats on a router with other devices. Thats up and down. It makes gaming the way its supposed to be. Its like having the internet on my HDD …oh, and there is never any power boost. ITS ALWAYS AT FULL SPEED!!! We have a large republican group trying to hinder it in our state (???) but at least my city council knew the REAL deal.

  20. francine hardaway’s avatar

    Doc, Colony has a vested interest in seeing the big content distro companies succeed, because I am sure they pay him the big bucks. I am in Arizona on Cox, and the download is 14, the upload 13.

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