From 0 to 1 in 100 years

Net Neutrality is a snowball.

That is, it's an idea that started small but grew steadily as it rolled forward, gaining mass and speed as it accreted the passions and opinions of many -- on all sides of the issue. Today the topic is so large and complex that it's hard to find where it began. It has also become so highly politicized that it may sink the telecom reform legislation that carriers have been working on since the last round of reform, in 1996.

Google currently lists 36.4 million results for "net neutrality" and another 3.13 million for "network neutrality". The top of five "sponsored links" is for, a carrier-funded anti-neutrality PR site. The next four are for pro-neutrality organizations. I like the one that says

Greedy Telecom Monopolies

If They Had Their Way,

You Would Never Find This Article.

Perhaps the biggest of the Pro-Neutrality sites is, a coalition representing what Anti-Neutro blogger Richard Bennett calls "A. The end to end cargo cult... B. Big Content Companies... C. Political bloggers... (and) D. Bewildered PACs".

Its equivalent on the Anti-Neutro side is Hands Off The Internet, which calls itself "a nationwide coalition of Internet users" even though its "member organizations" include Cingular, AT&T/SBC, BellSouth and Alcatel. Also the National Black Chamber of Commerce. (Follow the money.)

Yet, as with every runaway snowball, Net Neutrality has long since passed out of its originators' control.

Case in point. The top Net Neutrality search result on Google goes to the Wikipedia entry for Network Neutrality. The original version of that entry appeared on January 15, 2005 and had 246 words, including headlines and external links. The current version has 7,756 words (that's 361 more than yesterday), and is updated many times every day by both pro- and anti-neutrality authors (21 times today, so far, and it's only 10:45am Pacific time). Go read it, if you can.

Each side frames the debate in its own terms, of course. To the carriers, it's about competition and keeping business safe from government interference. To the Neutros, it's about using government to keep the Net safe from carriers' plans to turn it into a system of toll roads. Never mind that the carriers are monopolists who deeply fear the same free market they pretend to advocate. And never mind the fact that "neutrality" is an ideal that few ordinary citizens with a DSL or a cable connection have ever experienced, since tiered and crippled services are all the carriers have ever offered to "consumers" in any case.

Not surprisingly, Republicans oppose Net Neutrality while Democrats favor it. There are some exceptions, but that's basically how the partisan lines divide. Both sides are also highly focused on the current battle.

To those of us with libertarian leanings (I'm one), failure would be a fine fate for telecom legislation that promises "deregulation" and "reform" while providing little of either.

Bob Frankston, coinventor of the spreadsheet and one of the fathers of home networking, dismisses the entire "Regulatorium", including all efforts to define and limit infrastructure for the protection and convenience of carriers. To Bob, the Net's infrastructure is nothing more than a path. Which is why he likes to compare the Net to roads and sidewalks. Would we want to pay tolls for using the sidewalks and roads in front of our house?

Every analogy breaks down around exceptions, of course, and the biggest exception to the road-and-sidewalk analogy is abundance. As Bob also points out, the 15Mb of downstream sidewalk he gets over Verizon's fiber optic home service is only one percent of the broadway he'd have if Verizon weren't busy making the Net scarce for its customers.

The biggest problem for the carriers is that, once the capacity is provided, there is little scarcity to leverage. Yes, there are costs -- very large ones in some cases -- to bringing fiber-grade internet connections to homes and businesses. And there are costs for connecting to backbones. But we need to depend on carriers to fund the capacity? Put another way, Why should we depend on companies that accelerate into the future with one foot on the brake pedal while they park in the middle of intersections and charge us to cross them?

The short answer is, We shouldn't.

That means we have to depend on ourselves.

And the tide of history. Because that, more than anything else, is on our side.

I hadn't realized how much we had going for us until my wife said something brilliant the other day. We'd been talking about all this Net Neutrality stuff. Aso about the economy in general. She summarized matters this way:

"We're in the middle of a 100-year transition from analog to digital technology. That means we have another fifty years of prosperity and growth."

Right then I realized that Net Neutrality is just another name for a clear digital path between devices. Regardless of how near or far away they may be. And that there is an incalculable sum of money to be made in clearing those paths and putting them to use. Also that I won't live to see the job finished.

"Broadband" is like "long distance": just another name for transient scarcity. We want our Net to be as fast, accessible and unrestricted as a hard drive. (And in time even that analogy will seem too slow.)

The only way that will happen is if the Net becomes ubiquitous infrastructure -- something which, in a practical sense, nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve.

There is infinitely more business in making that happen, and using the results, than Congress can ever protect for the carriers alone.

And guess who is in the best position to make money doing that? Right: the carriers.

Will somebody please tell them?

This piece originally appeared as the 6 July 2006 issue of the SuitWatch newsletter.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Many groups want to rule the internet

Thorsten's picture

Always when I read about "net neutality" (I´m from germany) I think about the blue ribbon campaign 10 years ago. Those are different cases but you can compare them, because always when "higher" interests are hit, things are changing and often not in the best way. Doc, your wife is right, there is a still a long way to go and internet technologies are changing very fast.

knell of the internet

Fereira's picture

I think that's the death knell of the internet as a fast moving, fast changing system. And I believe that , I suppose so.

Think a little more globally

Anonymous's picture

I would like to make what I believe is a very important point.

Whenever I see articles about net neutrality, (or for that fact the Internet in general), I very much get the impression that USA = Internet and Internet = USA. Excuse me for pointing it out, but there is an Internet outside the borders of the USA.

I know it only seems like net neutrality is an issue for the USA... FOR THE MOMENT...but please try to think a bit more globally and address whether this could end up affecting other regions of the world (like things so often do and considering that major telecoms providers have presence in multiple markets) so maybe the rest of the world could get a bit of a headstart to push back against what may be coming down the river!

Tims Right

ashley's picture

Tim Berners Lee has a great post about this new law trying to be passed I think that he is right and that it makes no sense that if I am on a cable modem and your on telephone modem then we can no longer talk, this makes no sense, and shame on the people who support it.

Libertarian? And you want

Anonymous's picture

Libertarian? And you want government regulation!?!!?
I think you have the wrong definition of libertarian.

This whole thing seems to be a 'the sky is falling, the sky is falling' problem. In the last 10 years my connection speed has gone from 9600 Baud to 7.5 Mbits/second for an approximate doubling in price.

Is there anyone who can realistically say where the net will be in 10 years? No. Anyone who says they can is a liar. One sure way to stifle innovation and quick change is to submit to government regulation. Think FDA. Think FCC. That's the death knell of the internet as a fast moving, fast changing system.

I see the Net Neutrality argument as people who want to innovate versus people who want to freeze at the status quo because it favors them. I'm for innovation.

I don't think that word means what you think it means.

Flemming Frandsen's picture

Where is the innovation in breaking something, just to charge for fixing it?

That's exactly what the carriers are preparing to do.

Would it be innovation if the water company started putting tons of crap in your water, just to make you want to buy a water filter to remove said crap?

Would it be ok for your power company to turn off your power for 1 minute each day, just to sell you a UPS?

How about a city that has a sniper shoot out tires of your trucks if you don't pay for them not to do that?

This is a matter of carriers going out of their way to break conectivity for certain users, unless they pay them not to.

Personally I tend to agree with Doc, I think it's self-punishing asshattery that will take care of itself, I know I'd drop an ISP that tried to degrade traffic from sites I use.

Government regulation?

Doc Searls's picture

Where did I say I want government regulation?

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

The real truth about Net Neutrality

X-Nc's picture

I just went over this issue with a fine tooth comb early last week and posted what I found on my blog. The Net Neutrality that Doc is talking about would be wonderful. Unfortunately this kind of "ubiquitous infrastructure" idea has nothing to do with the current fight on the Hill. If you think that backing one side or the other of this fight will end up benefiting the end user then you don't know what is actually going on in the Senate and House. For more information read my blog post from June 27th on the topic. The bottom line is that whatever you think you might be fighting for, the end outcome will be higher fees and most likely tiered pricing for 'Net access.

The end users (i.e. All of us reading this) will lose. Period.

Not always a telecom monopoly

Anonymous's picture

It's not just the telecom monopoly impacted by net neutrality. I'm a small ISP, I mean SMALL. I own my network; it's uses outdoor radios, similar to the upcoming WiMAX products.

I'm currently working on becoming a "phone company" to provide local phone numbers to my Internet data customers. It's a specialization of my IP data services; like the Internet I sell. This type of specialization gives me a competitive edge over the incumbent telecom monopoly; more services, better services and less expensive. The advantage small business has over big business.

The net neutrality law would make it impossible for me to do this. It would make it impossible for me to sell special services, like VoIP or traffic conditioning.

I'm less angry about the bill now than when I first read the thing. I have spent hundreds of thousands of borrowed dollars, put my home and my families financial future at risk, and I will be financial devistated if this bill becomes a law.

People hate the big monopolies (think, it was government laws that set the stage for their creation). I don't think it will be the "gynormous" monopolies that get hurt, just us little guys. So think about that before you pick up your torches and stakes.

Good point.

Doc Searls's picture

The certainty of unintended consequences is the best argument against Net Neutrality regulation.

As I've said elsewhere, Net Neutrality is a fine rallying cry, and a fire we should hold to the carriers' feet. But it's not something we should burn into law. Partly because nobody can agree how to define it. But mostly because it can be interpreted in many kinds of unforseen ways that could restrain more business than it enables.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

net neutrality solved

Anonymous's picture

A tin can antenna on every roof ($3 to $7) gives everyone broadband access to their community. It's the equivalent of party lines when phones began. Or tv in shop windows, when tv began. That solves the broadband issue. The issue of Internet access then requires a coordinated community effort to leverage the best options available.

The problem with the solution, is, noone can create a monopoly, gatekeeper power, or censorship. Ah, well, back to the drawing board. This old fashioned barn-raising notion is just too mushy.

P.S. Here in Charles City, Iowa, we've set the goal of 10,000 large coffee cans. If you want to help, let me know:

They are trying to improve it

Richard Bennett's picture

The enhancements Verizon has made - fiber to the home and QoS - are improvements, but the scurrilous neuts trying to stop them.

Somebody should tell the silly neuts to back off, regulation is not the answer.

And what if we the carriers write off a whole city?

Doc Searls's picture

Richard, I would love to have Verizon's fiber service here in Santa Barbara. But the best Verizon can bring to my house is DSL at 768Kb down and 12Kb up. The local cable competitor, Cox, actually cut back on its top speeds to homes not long after we moved to town in 2001.

I told my wife I'd be willing to move here if the town met two conditions: 1) a Peets coffee shop; and 2) relatively high speed Net connections to homes. Back where we lived in Silicon Valley (between Woodside and Redwood City), the best we could get was about 100Kb (though symetrical, with no port blockages and 16 IP addresses) for $141 from a CLEC).

When we got here, Cox didn't throttle the service (I got 5Mb plus downstream and 1Mb or more upstream, for $30-something/month), didn't block Port 25, didn't care if you hooked up N devices, including wi-fi access points, and gave great service. Then they lost their @Home backbone, and "improved" service by cutting it back to 3Mb down and 300Kb up, blocking port 25 and generally getting more sucky around service. When they added "business" service, it started with 1/3 the downstream speed of the home service at 3x the price. With 5 IP addresses, provided you give them a MAC address first for each.

Recently Cox has been improving infrastructure nationwide, although they've put Santa Barbara at the back of the train. I'm currently paying $63 for 10Mb down and 1Mb up, which hasn't actually been provisioned. By paying for that I get 5Mb down and 756Kb up, which is the best they can currently deliver. Their "business" service remains unimproved. Guys who work for Cox in the field (for example, replacing crapped out cable modems) tell me the company has no plans to bring fiber anywhere close to homes, and that the company cares far more about digital cable TV than about Internet service.

In a meeting of our local broadband task force (an ad hoc group formed to explore alternatives to the slow progress we're getting from incumbents), a Cox representative said there would be "no problem" providing fiber to anybody who wants it. Provided they paid something like $50K for installation and $10K per month for service. This, I suppose, is what large local companies, hospitals and governement offices are paying.

So. What do we do? I think the best course is to start or attract competitive businesses who want to serve the people here who are willing to pay for better service than we get from the local duopoly. This would seem to require some cooperation from local government. And so far we're getting it. This, however, is different than local (or any) government interfering with, or competing with local businesses.

I agree that regulation is not the answer. But it is not silly for the neuts, or anybody, to find reluctant or inadequate service to be exactly that. And to encourage the open marketplace to offer competitive alternatives. That's what I've been pushing for.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

Verizon does not make improvements

Anonymous's picture

If what you say is true, you'd provide concrete evidence. If it's not, readers will find no concrete evidence to back up what you say.

Have you heard of Google?

Richard Bennett's picture

Readers can go to this new web site called where you can search the Internet. They index the darn thing every day, and it's really cool. Go search for "Verizon" and "FIOS" and you'll see how it works. If Google is too evil for you - they put people in jail for the Chinese Government - try

I try to teach a man to fish every day.

Hi Richard, Back when

Peter Yellman's picture

Hi Richard,

Back when Verizon was still Bell Atlantic and I was living in the Nothern Virginia area, BA famously made public their "plans" to invest over $5 Billion bringing "fiber to the home". Coincidentally, this was right around the time the 1996 bill was in the home stretch and BA was angling for various concessions, especially in pricing.

Of course, those improvements never happened, although BA got most of what it wanted in terms of pricing and regulatory concessions, including a relaxation of regulations that allowed BA -- now Verizon -- to in large part reassemble the former AT&T monopoly. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there -- perhaps including you -- who would make excuses for them. But the bottom line is they got what they wanted, and didn't deliver what they promised in return. And really, there's nothing anyone could do about it. In retrospect, of course, it is obvious that it was all just PR. So, pardon me if I remain skeptical when the huge telecoms claim they need such-and-such concessions in order to finance "the next big thing" that will make my life an earthly techno-paradise. In fact, pardon me if express skepticism at your fundamental assumption, that they are even capable of figuring out what the next big thing is.

It's like you said, Richard -- "Google it".

Peter Yellman