SHIFT: Broadband fight pits corporations against users, Internet future at stake

Whatever happened to the Information Superhighway? It was the big talk of the 90s, but now the United States has fallen to 16th place in the world for broadband deployment and availability, according to a survey by the Communication Workers of America. While we sink in the world rankings, service providers such as Comcast are slowing down the Internet connections of users who partake of too much of the touted “unlimited” service.

Meanwhile, the government is watching and listening to complaints of customers and users, but not doing much yet to stand in the way of the purveyors of Internet connectivity. Instead of expanding the pipes of the Internet, companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner have chosen to invest in acquiring smaller companies, amassing power and influence so they can dictate terms to the government and broadband users. They’d prefer to abolish Net neutrality and move toward a tiered service, vowing to control what we can see and hear on the Web, while leaving the services of competitors on a slower tier.

While these greedy corporations fight for control of the Internet and vie for the right to charge whatever prices they can extract, paying customers are trapped in a broadband world of lame connectivity that creeps toward obsolescence, without much recourse. With the future of the Internet and free speech at stake, what’s next?

Net Now Neutral
Net neutrality has been the status quo of the Internet since its inception, promising that all data will be treated the same whether it’s coming from big business or individuals. This communication explosion is the greatest democratization the world has ever known. Says Vint Cerf, one of the inventors of Internet Protocol (IP), "The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services. A lightweight but enforceable neutrality rule is needed to ensure that the Internet continues to thrive."

In the U.S., broadband speeds aren’t increasing as much as in other developed countries, and in many areas, they’re stagnating. Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is no longer in the technological forefront (see graphic above). The average download speed in the U.S. is around 1.9mbps (megabits per second), while speeds of 100mbps are commonplace in Japan.

We pay more than other countries for that slow service, too. According to Ben Scott of public interest group Free Press and Public Knowledge, “A recent Small Business Administration study of broadband prices showed that small businesses in Massachusetts or Maine are likely to pay $40 or more for a 6mbps, consumer-grade cable modem. Their competitors in Japan are paying the same price for 100 megabits. This 15-fold speed advantage translates into more goods, better services, and higher efficiency.”

Forged Messages
The idea of neutrality also extends to the amounts of data and types of applications used to get that data. But service providers are clandestinely fighting that concept. Case in point: Comcast admitted to secretly slowing down data traffic that used the file-sharing software BitTorrent, saying the users of such applications were data hogs and “clogged” the network. At an FCC hearing investigating the practice, Comcast called the slowdown a “delay” of service, when it was actually akin to forging the identity of a user and sending fake messages to the receiver, essentially shutting down the communication altogether.

At that same hearing, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin denounced such secret schemes. “They must be conducted in an open and transparent way,” he said to Comcast executives at the hearing. “While networks may have reasonable practices, they obviously cannot operate without taking some reasonable steps, but that does not mean they can arbitrarily block access to certain services.”

Unlimited, But With Limits
Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen doesn’t think his company’s broadband service is marketed as “unlimited.” He said at the hearing, “I don’t think we are restraining customers from using the service in accordance with the way they have purchased them. We sell a service and say it will be sold as up to a certain speed. But it is sold as part of a shared network, and its use will not be used to degrade use for other users.”

Why should service providers spend the money to build more capacity? They’re not motivated to do so, because with bandwidth scarce, they can charge more, and with artificial bottlenecks, they can force customers to pick and choose their Internet services much the same way they must do when selecting tiers of cable TV services. At the root of this problem is the lack of any real competition for the broadband dollar, with at most two choices in any given market (cable vs. telephone) and in many markets just one choice or none.

Somebody Do Something
We’re no fans of government regulation, but this issue of broadband access and speed is important enough not to be left to the greed of the phone companies and cable service providers. Help could be on the way, in the form of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008, a bipartisan bill in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced last month that aims to support Net neutrality.

Also, FCC Chairman Martin alluded to taking strong action against Comcast, but when we asked if there would be further hearings on the issue, his office acknowledged our question but hasn’t responded yet.

The pending legislation and FCC inquiry are both good signs that the U.S. Government is getting involved, but we think more action is required, treating this need for enhanced broadband access and speed with the same urgency as the construction of the Interstate Highway System or the moon landings.

If that ever happens, super broadband networks could be easily sold like local phone service, offered on a truly unlimited basis even with giant HDTV movies streaming within. Here’s a novel idea: If there must to be caps on excessive usage, place them only at the highest levels, say 1Gbps for 24 hours a day, to be sure those who are running servers can’t use a consumer service.

Old Days are Gone
Service providers need to get used to the idea of huge amounts of bandwidth running through their pipes and into customers’ homes. If HDTV downloads are to ever happen, an abundance of fiber-optic connectivity is needed, and soon. The old days of top-down, monolithic communications companies controlling all the access to mass media are over, and corporations such as AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon can’t be allowed stand in the way of progress just to enhance their profits. The future of the country is at stake.