Monday, July 03, 2006

The dangers of explanation

Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) got into trouble describing the Internet recently. Its a good example of why explaining technical issues to lay people is so hard.

The explanation he gives is not completely crazy and the points he is trying to make are somewhat valid. The problem is that he clearly does not understand the technology he is trying to explain.

Even people who do not understand electronics should know that mentioning 'tubes' is an unfortunate choice of language. If I hear the word tube I think of 1930s era valve radios. Vint Cerf or Tim Berners-Lee can get away with that type of analogy, nobody has any doubt about their technical knowledge. The starting assumption for a politician is that their understanding of the technical issues is superficial at best.

Net neutrality is not a technical issue, it is a political and economic issue. If there was a free market in telecommunications services the problem of net neutrality would be solved through the normal processes of competition. The problem with the Internet is that the free market ends roughly a three miles from the consumer's house. The 'last mile' has its name because it is the last mile to get built. We already have a fibre optic high speed Internet capable of providing 100 mb/sec to every house in the country. The problem is that today's last mile is provided by legacy cable and telco hookups. In most communities both are effective local monopolies.

Here in Medford I have a choice of getting my Internet from Verizon or from Comcast. As a result the effective price is $60 either way. To get that $19.99 Verizon DSL deal I have to have a Verizon phone line first. Same deal with the cable hookup, broadband is only cheap if it is bundled with another service.

Stevens makes a more powerful case than he intended. His clumsy analogy illustrates the best argument for not making regulations to require Net Neutrality at this point in time: the regulators do not understand the issues themselves yet.

The obvious rebuttal to this argument is that regulators should understand the issues they are trying to address. If Stevens does not understand the modern world it is time for someone else to carry out the task of legislating for it.

In the long term the outcome is more or less certain. Constituents have votes, corporations do not. Just as the telcos and cable companies ended up being regulated the ISPs will end up regulated if they outrage public decency.

In the short term Net Neutrality will continue to be a messy battle. It is unlikely that the campaign for Net Neutrality will gain fire outside the blogosphere until actual examples of monopoly abuse become more frequent.

The key to winning the battle is to develop technologies that open up the local loop monopoly. WiMax may be the answer. Fix a WiMax transmitter to every tenth utility pole and you have ubiquitous wireless networking.

Another approach would be to develop low cost methods of stringing optical fibre to the house. The raw materials required to make copper cable are vastly more expensive than the raw materials used to make fibre. Copper Coax cable currently costs $100 for 1000' vs $380 for fibre. Fibre optic is the material of choice in the developing world because its scrap value is zero.

Perhaps some cobination of these technologies is the answer.

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