The choice between bad and worse might get bigger

by Doc Searls

In the last several days a flurry of postings about a new company called piled up in my email box. Technorati finds 163 new posts on the subject. Google's Blogsearch finds 329. (As of 4:30am Friday morning, which is when I'm writing this.) The pile will get a lot higher before M2Z gets off the ground. Or buried under it.

M2Z puts VC heavies (Kleiner Perkins, Charles River, Redpoint) behind two heavies in the Internet buildout field: Milo Medin, who deserves the primary credit for getting Internet service to work over cable systems; and John Muleta, the former head of the FCC's wireless bureau. Medin is an especially auspicious participant. Here's a historic article from Wired (in January 1996), which tells how of Kleiner Perkins recruited Milo personally to work with @Home, which was a wild technical success, even though it failed ultimately as a company. , "Milo, last time I saw him, was parked inside Charles River's offices and was tooling around with Myth TV. Who knew he was cooking up yet another big network." MythTV is a Linux project, by the way.

Go to the , and you'll be greeted by warm and fuzzy Flash-animated quotes from notables (e.g. President Bush, FCC Chairman Martin) calling for ubiquitous Internet access, under the less warm but equally fuzzy slogan "Freedom. Innovation." The only link leads to a .pdf of the company's audacious application to the FCC for spectrum, at no cost, with which the company proposes "to rapidly make available free, high speed broadband access to nearly every consumer, business and non-profit and public safety entity in the United States..." Later, it adds, "The mission of M2Z is simple -- to make affordable broadband available throughout the United States of America. While M2Z is a for-profit entity, on of its core principles is that it can thrive financially while significantly advancing the public interest. The proposal before the Commission is the perfect marriage of commercial passions and public commitment."

On an offline mailing list, one alpha geek whose smarts I respect says "Forget farting around with rate structures and local regulatory regimes. *This* is how to make the telco monopoly irrelevant." He adds, "We should be backing M2Z's application 110%"

But I have my doubts. M2Z looks to me like an obelisk painted to look like a rocket.

There are too many signs that, for all of its founders' accomplishments and smarts, M2Z is, at its heart, another carrier, with the same one-way, top-down controlling agenda.

Starting with that .pdf. I can understand publishing the application on the Web in that format, since the company would want the public to read exactly what was proposed to the FCC, in the same WYSIWYG way. But why not also make it available in HTML, or plain text? That's what the FCC does with most of its own documents. (Though they don't make it easy. You have to substitute .txt for .pdf in the URL to get the plaintext version.) Worse, why disable the copy function? I had to transcribe the above quotes, because copying was disabled, presumably by M2Z. For me that raises a big red flag that says "Command and control", not "freedom and innovation".

Then there's the text itself. A search for the word "freedom" in the application document brings no results. I get seven results for "innovation".

A search for "filter" (which also brings up "filtering", "filtered" and "filtration") brings twenty-seven results. Plus nineteen results for "indecent" or "indecency". Specifically, there is this (man, I hate having to retype this):

Mandatory Filtering of Indecent and Obscene Material. M2Z commits to mandatory filtering of indecent and obscene material for the National Broadband Radio Service. This will be accomplished through a compulsory setting on the service that will utilize state of the art filters, taking every reasonable and available step to block access to sites purveying pornographic, obscene or indecent material. Like the free service itself, M2Z's content filtering will be "always on." Moreover, National Broadband Radio Service customers will be unable to alter the filters as they constitute an essential element of that service.

What was that about freedom again?

M2Z, of course, will require new "Affordable Customer Premises Equipment".

There will be two levels of service: free and premium. For the free service, the proposal says,

First and foremost, M2Z will ensure a robust level of broadband service is provisioned, with asymmetric engineered data rates of at least 384kbps down and 128 kbps up, free of airtime or service charges, to all U.S. residents.

The premium service offers "faster data rates, access to additional content and/or special service offerings on a subscription basis" Also, five percent of its revenues will be kicked back to the federal government. Oh, and indecent material filtration is optional.

In sum, M2Z appears to be a private, low-speed, non-standard, asymmetrical filtered subset of the Internet for "consumers". In other words, TV 2.0.

As a potential customer of M2Z's premium services, I see nothing in the company's proposal that looks half as promising as what customers can already get today over Sprint/Verizon's or Cingular's services, both of which use cellular systems already in place. (From what I gather, it's easier to deploy EVDO than EDGE on Linux laptops right now. I'm a Cingular customer, and yesterday a guy at the local Cingular store said, "Linux? We're not even supporing EDGE on Macs." Which is why I may shortly become a Verizon or a Sprint customer.)

Speaking of which, if I were a cellular carrier, I'd accuse M2Z of asking for free spectrum to set up a new nationwide cell service, behind a "free Internet" ruse. But then, I'd be making that accusation entirely within the Regulatorium, which M2Z promises only to make bigger.

Hey, if we're asking the FCC for free market solutions, how about asking them to free up some damn spectrum?

Look at what the free market got with just a few little channels of short-range unlicensed wi-fi spectrum. Wouldn't we rather see the backers of M2Z go for that? With a swath of nationwide open spectrum, free markets for countless new offerings could bloom, raising a vast tide of economic activity that would surely benefit every citizen. And M2Z would, presumably, have a first-mover advantage there.

Instead, M2Z is asking the feds to give them land for building out a nationwide walled garden for captive customers -- one where "consumers" could also roam at no cost but with limited freedoms and unlimited exposure to advertising.

One extra choice between bad and worse.

This post is an update of yesterday's Suitwatch newsletter.