Broadband vs. Open Internet, Open Internet scores a point

FCC Chair Genachowski released a statement today to announce that he will put forward a proposal to his fellow commissioners “Preserving a Free and Open Internet”, and it has already been reported on the NYTimes online.

It is possible to read Genachowski’s statement very, very carefully, and see a distinction between Internet and Broadband that *might* be there (or it might not). If it comes through in the rules, I will be happy, because the FCC at least got started on the right foot. For a while there it looked as if it was going to have two left feet (Broadband and InternetBroadband), and we know where that leads.

I’m sure many will write that there are zillions of “loopholes” in that ruling allowing for all kinds of bad behavior by Broadband providers in the services they offer to customers. And I would tend to agree with those concerns. There is nothing that preserving a free and open internet can do, nothing at all, for many of the problems of telecom and information services in the broad sense of the term Broadband. But when those broadband providers offer a connection to the Internet, that is, when they offer the ability to access all of the services that are made available anywhere in the world from any other user or company that connects to the Internet, the rules the FCC proposes will apply.

This is a good thing, in my opinion. It’s not world peace. But it’s a good step forward.

But I have some concerns – mostly not the ones about details and loopholes. If you read the NYTimes article, they did not read Genachowski’s statement carefully, starting with the headline on the piece: “F.C.C. Chairman Outlines Broadband Framework” (fact checking, please?). A large part of this confusion arises because most people in the policy space confuse Broadband with Internet – as if they were equivalent terms. Apples are not appleseeds. Genachowski, so far, perhaps because he read the comments I and others have provided to the FCC very closely (I hope), uses both words, but he gets them right so far. However, I would think that an agency full of lawyers would know that defining terms is critical to making sense in an architecture or in a regulation. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve been a systems architect for nearly 40 years, and slang and ambiguity will crash a system just as it will crash a law. (all you digerati who conflate bandwidth with information delivery rate, thinking it’s cool to be wrong, can tune out here).

This may not be the best regulatory framework for the Internet ever proposed, but at least Genachowski (unlike most of the folks in DC) uses the term Internet and the term Broadband right – in his statement. It sure would be easy if he wrote two clear definitions and made this point crystal clear, as follows:

Broadband is a category of general-purpose “wide area network” data networking systems that provids many services to each customer over a single, digital, switched high-bitrate medium like fiber, coaxial cable, twisted copper pairs, or wideband digital radio links. There are two kinds of broadband systems – fixed and mobile – available today, where mobile services are characterized by the ability of the user to move from place to place. Examples of broadband wide area networks are:

  • Fixed: Verizon FiOS, Comcast’s hybrid-fiber-coax systems, fiber PON systems, and fixed digital wireless,
  • Mobile: wireless LTE, wireless HSPA, and WiMax.

The Internet is an evolving family of protocols and interconnected networks that span the planet’s surface, its sea floor, and some number of miles into space, that are based on the transport of IP Datagrams over many diverse underlying networks based on many diverse networking technologies.

The Internet can be used over Broadband facilities, but it is the same Internet that is used over many other facilities. When a Broadband service provider provides “Internet access” to its users, it is important that this access service preserve the *essential* characteristic of the Internet – its openness and generality.

There are lots of details to sort out before it’s clear that Genachowski’s principles are even a good first step. I don’t love the weaknesses of Genachowski’s proposal, especially the exemption of applying these principles to Internet over Mobile Broadband. There I think he’s confused the high degree of innovation of wireless technology with some idea that the Internet over that technology will have to be different. We didn’t need to make the Internet change when we moved it onto Fixed Broadband platforms. Why should we have to change anything about it as we move to run Internet connections over mobile broadband? The Internet was designed to work over any kind of network, and it works over mobile broadband platforms today! The exception is an invitation for the mobile industry to establish “facts on the ground” that falsely prove the Internet “doesn’t work”. I’ve seen that already, where bugs in HSPA deployment of Internet services by operators have been used to argue that the Internet “doesn’t work” on their networks. It would be wonderful if the FCC had a technical capability to investigate these questions honestly, rather than outsourcing its technical sources to engineers who are told that an “open mobile Internet” is “not in your employers’ or its customers best interest” (that’s a quote from an executive at a telecom equipment company.)

However, there is some danger that when the actual proposed rules are written, the focus on the Internet will be lost. Certainly there are lots of advocates out there, even some who claim to support Neutrality, who would abandon any effort to keep the Internet open and neutral, in order to gain some other political goal that sounds like “net neutrality”. For example, there are lots of worries about so-called “loopholes” in Genachowski’s rules that would allow Broadband service providers to sell different speed Internet access products to different customers where the faster speeds cost more money. I don’t understand this worry at all. It used to cost more to have a DSL phone line than to have an ISDN phone line, and more for ISDN than an ordinary POTS line. Each of these could be used as to place a call to an Internet Service Provider, but the faster ones cost more. Other loopholes suggested include the idea that implementing an ability for users to pay to have some of their packets be prioritized over others would be a huge problem – but to the extent that this facility exists in the Internet already as a standard, such a rule would be attempting to redesign how the Internet works,

The key distinction here is that letting the users, through their applications, choose what their packets do, and where their packets go, and specify whatever priorities they need is quite different from having one link in the chain, the last mile provider, be able to control what applications the user can effectively run, or constrain how well they run. It’s this edge based freedom to choose to whom you speak, with what services you connect, how you speak and what you can collaborate on that constitutes the freedom of the Internet, due to its openness. The last mile access provider (Verizon, ATT, Cogent on the consumer side, or various large interconnects, such as Level 3, that support business users like eBay or small businesses) should have no say in deciding what Internet applications do inside their packets.

The main risk here could be that a provider makes something that they call the Internet, but in fact is highly non-standard and is not at all a standard Internet connection. That would be clear interference with the Internet, and if folks are required to be transparent, their deviations will be apparent, and the relief can be sought (either by the user or by appeal to the regulator). By distinguishing the Internet from other Broadband offerings, we can at least clarify the discussion, and if there are specific guidelines keeping the Internet open, by making sure it is the same Internet all over the US and the world, then we have a basis for sensibly understanding what will destroy its value.

The key benefit of framing things this way is that the Internet connection sold to the user must provide the standard, commonly understood, consensus definition of the Internet service – the ability to address IP datagrams to any destination on the collective Internet, and have it delivered without the access provider interfering with that delivery for its own purposes, or doing something other than deliver the datagram as requested according to the standard understanding of how the Internet works.

Will this make Television better? Maybe Television will be revolutionized when it is delivered over the Internet connection, compared to television delivered over the same Broadband provider’s Broadband network as a “special service”. It certainly will allow more people to distribute programs, whether from their homes or at scale. I don’t know for sure, but I think this is exactly what will happen. I *do* know how that will be prevented, though. It will be prevented by allowing the TV provider to select which parts of the Internet you can access over its Internet service, or by the TV provider providing a defective or overpriced Internet service, while at the same time maintaining a de facto (or even state-enforced) monopoly over access to string broadband cables to your home.

However, I prefer to be hopeful, rather than discouraged, that at least the FCC has made the baby step of recognizing the Internet as an independent thing, one worth protecting, and not merely a product of Comcast, Verizon, or ATT that is some kind of narrow, walled “Internet clone”. In other words, the kind of thing AOL claimed was “better than the Internet” because it was selective – selecting cheap or profitable content, and leaving the creativity outside Fortress AOL. Those companies didn’t create the Internet – the Internet was and is created by its users (including user organizations like Google, Apple, eBay, Amazon, banks, small businesses, and national/state governmental agencies, and individual users like all of the users of email, blogging tools, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter). The access providers whine about not being able to “monetize” the Internet like they “monetize” their Cable TV offers, not mentioning that they *pay* for Cable TV shows, but pay nothing for the Internet that its users create for each other, share with each other, and sell to each other. The Internet has created a huge new economy, so I think if the Broadband guys merely connect us into it and keep growing their capacity and speeds, they will do a fine busioness, too, from what we are willing to pay them to do so.

Updated: 12/2/2010 to add a small clarification to the comments on prioritization.