A Series of Tubes: Infrastructure, Broadband, and Baseline Content Control

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February 12

The late Senator Ted Stevens famously said in a 2006 committee meeting that the “Internet is not something that you just dump something on; it’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.” While he was ridiculed widely at the time, Senator Stevens’s remarks actually reveal an interesting hortatory description of what the Internet should be (though given the rest of his comments, apparently not one that he intended). What Stevens’s metaphor suggests is that the physical conduits of the Internet should act like nothing more than non-judgmental conduits of the rest of the world’s traffic. We will see this week, however, that this is not a true reflection of how the tubes work, and we have strong debates as to what the government's role should be in ensuring that large enough "tubes" reach all those who would like to be online. The big questions for this week: What are the “tubes” of the Internet? Should the tubes have a role in controlling the throughput content? What is the role of government when it comes to developing and regulating our Internet-tubes?

Our guest speaker this week will be Rob Faris, the Research Director of the Berkman Center, who has been heavily involved in broadband infrastructure policy and research.


Optional Readings

  • Dawn Nunziato, Virtual Freedom (Chs. 1 & 7) (pending)

Assignment 1

Assignment 1 is due before class today (i.e., February 12th before 5:30pm ET). You can submit the assignment here.

Videos Watched in Class


Links from the Adobe Connect discussion

The Kingsbury Commitment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingsbury_Commitment

The breakup of AT&T is encapsulated here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_System_divestiture

Stephen Colbert on AT&T/SBC consolidation: http://videosift.com/video/Colbert-regarding-the-new-ATT

The Brand X case: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Cable_%26_Telecommunications_Association_v._Brand_X_Internet_Services

Dawn Nunziato's book "Virtual Freedom" Relating to Brand X case: http://www.amazon.com/Virtual-Freedom-Neutrality-Internet-Stanford/dp/0804763852/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1360712643&sr=8-1&keywords=virtual+freedom

National Broadband Plan: http://www.broadband.gov/plan/

The full Berkman broadband study: https://cyber.law.harvard.edu/pubrelease/broadband/

Gizmodo article on how AOL still profits from dialup services: http://gizmodo.com/5982853/aol-earns-most-of-its-money-from-subscribers

Tim Wu's book about cycles between emergence, frontierism, and then regulation: http://www.amazon.com/The-Master-Switch-Information-Empires/dp/0307390993/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1360714112&sr=8-1&keywords=the+master+switch

On maximizing fiber capacity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wavelength-division_multiplexing

Fiber to Home vs. Node: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiber_to_the_x

A map of the cable provider's division of the US: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2011/01/12/picture-1000-words-us-cable-provider-map/78308/

Article about the struggling muni broadband in Monticello, MN: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2012/06/12/monticello-picks-company-to-move-municipal-broadband-forward

Article on Verizon's, AT&T's, and Google's Lobbying: https://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9236619/Verizon_AT_T_Google_among_top_10_lobbyers

Other Links

Great Articles about Bill Clinton advocating for Nat'l Broadband Network (Relating to Benkler)



Phildade 16:28, 12 February 2013 (EST)

Class Discussion

Please remember to sign your postings by adding four tildes (~~~~) to the end of your contribution. This will automatically add your username and the date/time of your post, like so: Asellars 15:29, 21 January 2013 (EST)

Weekly Response by TAG

Benkler discussed in his paper, the Next Generation Connectivity, was intriguing to me. To examine how the United States is lagging in the transition from broadband to the next generation technology. He stated, "High capacity networks are seen as strategic infrastructure, intended to contribute to high sustainable economic growth and to the core aspects of human development." I am in agreement with this view. By limiting access by weaker technology it will hurt economic growth and future development of countries.

Competition is paramount in the advancement of technology and the industry as a whole. The open access policies allow for a competitive market to allow for innovation to take hold. The way to maximize access is to allow for a wireless/nomadic platform, which will reach all the corners of the world. Countries which have invested in these areas have seen better results. The lack of competition is what has been a material flaw in the United States armor, causing them to drop back in the pack. These lack of freedoms and choices is what Adam Theirer was speaking about in his article. With new players like Google entering into the equation, it will only be a matter of time before access and affordability will be attainable by all. Interestingcomments 06:19, 6 February 2013 (EST)

Thierer’s naive opposition to the “centralized planning” of Internet policy explicitly surrenders responsibility for the governance of computer networks to the callous ambivalence of the marketplace. The power to restructure and redesign human relations that entities like Google and Facebook so epitomize inheres the danger of an Internet operated on behalf of the profiteers. To the extent that corporate superpowers attain the ability to “oversee” or “govern” the substantive communities of the Internet in the manner that powerful states have come to exert power over physical territories, the revolutionary potentialities of the Internet will be lost to engineers working on behalf of shareholders. This prospect is perhaps more dangerous than the threat of explicit state control of the Internet.

Johnfloyd6675 20:27, 8 February 2013 (EST)

Net neutrality is a concept that gets confusing pretty fast, so I attempted to summarize background on the issue in less than 500 words. While I originally wrote the following for this week's class, I also posted it on a friend's blog about current issues. Anyway here is the piece:

Net Neutrality (NN) is the idea that all information that flows across the Internet – all content, platforms, data, applications, etc – should be treated equally. In the U.S., Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Time Warner only charge you for the speed of data transfer at a monthly rate. They do not themselves charge you for accessing certain types of content over other types of content, which IS what they do for cable television. Proponents for NN want to keep the Internet an open and free communication tool rather than a controlled, walled garden like cable. There are primarily two kinds of debates going on here: 1.) whether NN should be preserved as the core architecture of the Internet and 2.) whether and how NN should be regulated by the government.

Let’s first consider what neutrality means as it relates to a network's design. As Tim Wu points out, the electric grid is an example of a neutral network because people are free to use it as they please. The electric grid does not give special treatment to certain appliances over others – you can plug in your toaster just as easily as your AC. Similarly, the Internet was conceived as a neutral network. Its pioneers envisioned a democratized “network of networks,” one that could not be “owned” by a corporation or government and as a result fostered enormous innovation and economic growth.

Without NN, proponents fear ISPs would become too powerful a centralized force and gain an unfair business advantage. Specifically, ISPs could block sites they deem to violate copyright law, favor traffic to their owned and operated sites, slow down traffic to competitive threats, or adopt “fast lanes” for customers willing to pay more. To take one recent example, Comcast was accused of stifling traffic to Netflix in order to nudge users towards Comcast-owned Xfinity for video streaming.

Opponents to NN claim that offering different “Internet subscriptions” for different kinds of content actually gives consumers more choice. If someone just wants email and google search, they could pick the appropriate plan. And also gain better quality of service for what they want to do. Furthermore, there are indeed some types of information, such as spam, malware, and illegal content, that is presumably worth filtering. Yet proponents of NN worry that drawing lines between “good” and “bad” could encroach freedom of speech, since such categories can be subjectively interpreted on the Internet.

Even if people agree that the Internet should be a neutral network, there is a whole other debate of how to enforce this. Net neutrality laws first attracted attention in the early 2000s and have gone back and forth towards both sides. In the most recent regulations of 2010, the FCC Open Internet Order aimed to prevent ISPs from blocking or discriminating against rival websites. The rules did little to appease either side, however. NN advocates believed telecom companies could still charge some services more for supporting data-heavy content while NN opponents believed that the decisions about the Internet in general should be left up to the free market entirely. To this day, the debate rages on.

Asmith 21:56, 10 February 2013 (EST)

Online freedom of speech should not differ from other forms of speech. In the article More Confusion about Internet “Freedom,” an interesting quote merits attention: “America’s Founding Fathers intended the First Amendment to serve as a shield from government encroachment on our liberties, not as a sword for government to wield to reshape markets and speech according to the whims of five unelected bureaucrats at the FCC” (Thierer, 2011). Controversy surrounding Internet communication is ubiquitous and questions vis-à-vis control are complex. Online liberty is analogous to our daily lives; all individuals have the right to use the Internet in unique ways, contributing, responding, and shaping the infinite white spaces that exist. In our day-to-day lives (in the U.S.), we have similar freedoms to continuously pursue new opportunities. Our Constitution represents the framework that grants us these liberties, and those who assume power, whether elected or not, must continuously draw upon our founding ideologies. Online versus offline activities should not differ.

Concepts from this article are closely related to the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which states the following: “You have no sovereignty where we gather....We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one....I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us, etc., etc.” Although the boundaries of Internet regulatory control appear gray, one would think that nation states have the ultimate say (even if this may not be the case). How does the notion of control change when new elected officials assume power, or when countries lose democratic freedoms? Will cyber boundaries shift over time, as new generations emerge and we, as a global society, become more technologically advanced?

Another theme worth highlighting in this post, based on the readings this week, is the relationship between governments and corporations. In the U.S., special interest groups play an enormous role in elections, endorsing candidates and financing campaigns. Most Members of Congress are career-minded individuals, seeking to remain in office. If telecommunications giants support politicians, politicians must help telecommunications companies maintain revenues, correct? I have never researched lobbying activities within this industry, but after reading We Can’t All Be Google’s Kansas, telecommunications lobbying immediately came to mind. In New Zealand, for example, government subsidies reduced barriers to entry and lowered overall costs, which is an interesting strategy that made an enormous market impact for diverse stakeholders (both on the buyer and seller ends). In the US, however, the telecommunications landscape is most likely very different, and the FCC plays an enormous regulatory role. Will this change over time, as new high-speed generations emerge? If so, will the FCC assume more control or will markets become more liberalized? What role will election financing play as telecommunications expand? In the current U.S. telecommunications environment, how are distinct market monopolies and/or oligopolies determined for companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T? I have always been curious about the demographic/regional segmentation processes that these corporate giants have control over, affecting Internet speed, pricing, and associated services. Those who live in New York City have different telecommunications options than those who live in Lincoln, Nebraska…how, when, and where are these decisions made?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts! Zak Paster 06:29, 12 February 2013 (EST)

This position of the understanding that telecommunications is to be cited according to social opinion is not necessarily the abdication of misunderstanding that a term can be something other than mere electrons and protons and neutrons or even just thought. The novice reader could assume that this form of telecommunication is merely jest is a person who can understand personification.

That addressed, the following is a useful rendition of the idology that although a school such as Harvard prides itself on the idea that people are meant to be earning degrees or not earning degrees is the misunderstandint that mere spelling issues make a person an idiot.

That addressed, now the application of suggesting Wikipedia is not a amateur area to be sonsidered the best of education like a piece of historical evidence concludes that these particles have mass and that the understanding is nothing there more interesting that the unknown representation of an alleged run on sentence, hyphen excluded.

More work needs to be addressed concerning this fascist ideal of "equality" just because the minority in control think cosmetics are the real problem with society, like making a wiki page "pretty". Johnathan Merkwan 11:30, 12 February 2013 (EST)

I enjoyed reading Crawford’s article on competitive perspective of Internet and services, while supporting this perspective with Bankler’s reading about networks, quantity, quality and price of a service or good within the market. By taking into consideration all markets in which goods and services are produced, Internet still remains a business activity that builds the market as a whole. In my view, competition is just a game that ensures that supply meets the demand functions in an efficient manner. Taking into example ATT internet, few months ago I was in the market for a high speed internet that I was willing to pay not more than $25 a month, how does it work? (they haven’t met their promises on the speed) While talking to ATT, they offered my 18mbps for $28 a month during the period of 12 months, ($41 after 10 months) would I get the service that I am paying for? I decided to contact Verizon, which offered $20 for 12 months, however the price doubles after 12 months. Dilemma! Competition within businesses in my view, stays somewhat fair based on services that they offer, however the main factor is for the customer to define which product is relevant for their use. By taking into consideration the competitors of this service, the question arises as to who controls the Internet? Thierer, in his article, explained it quite essential, by stating that “people do not sit still” that allow the Internet to have freedom by allowing people to co-operate and control the Internet. user777 11:58, 12 February 2013 (EST)

Those who enjoyed Susan Crawford's writing in Wired may also want to check out her book launch at Berkman in December and her interview last week with Bill Moyers. asellars 12:43, 12 February 2013 (EST)

I read Susan Crawford's, Wired, We Can’t All Be Google’s Kansas: A Plan for Winning the Bandwidth Race, article with interest. As a Canadian I feel her pain. I pay nearly $70 per month for mediocre internet services (10 mbps download and like 35 gigs data or something). When I visit my grandma in florida I get the same package for less than $30 per month. Although I hear understand her approval of the google plan, and my knowledge of physical network structure is rather limited, I would have thought that the future of the internet would not come over laying fiber optic wires, but by vastly increasing wireless data capability through cell phone carriers. I spent some time in Cambodia a few years ago and while they did not have the wired network and electricity grid required to power desktops and laptops, many of the younger generation were able to access the internet through cell phones and wireless tablets. Perhaps it is something we could learn from them. Joshywonder 15:50, 12 February 2013 (EST)

I really enjoyed Sam Biddle's Gizmodo article on "How to Destroy the Internet." It was illuminating, reassuring, and yet cautioning at the same time. It was illuminating in how it showed with specific examples how the internet, despite how virtual and disconnected from the physical it seems, is ultimately rooted in hard infrastructure built all over the earth. Theoretically I know the internet is the result of a network of networks running together, but that knowledge is sometimes forgotten when I search for wifi or use an ethernet cable to connect myself directly to the internet. Biddle's article was reassuring in that it showed how almost impossible it is to destroy the internet (despite the article's name). It was cautioning in that by showing how the internet is the result of hard infrastructure located in physical places, it points out how the sovereign government of those various places can control the internet by controlling those infrastructures. And so as an example, because China already has a strong grip on the internet within the country itself, it only needs to focus on upgrading the Great Firewall filtering system installed at the "borders" between China and the outside world (I'm thinking the big undersea cables), in order to maintain censorship over certain subjects. --Muromi 15:59, 12 February 2013 (EST)

It's clear that the US Government needs an Infrastructure buildout program to upgrade our broadband capabilities after reading the Wired article. While the FCC points out that broadband is the future of our economic success, we have no centralized policy guiding the economy to increase capacity. Services exports, especially digital exports that need a broadband highway tomorrow like our goods in the 1800's needed railroads, are how we will grow GDP. At a time where our unemployment rate is still around 8%, the government could kill two birds with one stone. It could enact a New Deal-like buildout of our 21st Century infrastructure that will secure our economic future while at the same time reducing our current unemployment though this stimulus. Leaving it to a few monopolistic utility providers who have no interest in expanding societies' benefits if it reduces their profits will do nothing and is a foolish policy. Saridder 16:32, 12 February 2013 (EST)

Regarding the Alan Thierer reading:

"We are asked to ignore our history lessons, which teach us that centralized planning and bureaucracy all too often lead to massively inefficient outcomes, myriad unforeseen unintended consequences, bureaucratic waste, and regulatory capture." More Confusion about Internet “Freedom” by ADAM THIERER on MARCH 1, 2011

I'm just wondering if anyone else would use bureaucratic waste, massively inefficient outcomes and myriad unforeseen unintended consequences to describe interactions with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Comcast and the other national cable providers. I can't be the only one here who canceled their cable subscription because they spent more time on the phone regarding billing issues than they did actually watching cable TV? Or if you haven't already, are you giving serious consideration to dropping your landline altogether because you've just spent the whole day at home waiting for the technician who was scheduled to arrive sometime between dawn and nightfall? And how accurate is your data billing for your smartphone? Because, it seems to me, that if we leave the issue of Net Neutrality to the market, these are the people who will be making the final decisions.

The President's Analyst

Although the movie is so bad at times, it may seem un-watchable, there is a running gag about the phone company that makes this worth sitting through once. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_President's_Analyst

Regarding Gizmodo: If Gizmodo didn't exist, wouldn't we have to create them? Possibly we should all send a thank-you note to Nick Denton, because Gizmodo's pranks have got to be costing him advertising dollars.





Finally and seriously, I'd love for someone who knows something about this to walk us through why we wouldn't want to treat the Internet the way we treat air and water quality, railroads, highways, radio and tv? I'm certain this discussion would touch on the deregulation of the phone company and the airlines, but I'd certainly like to hear it.

Raven 17:13, 12 February 2013 (EST)

I was most drawn into the readings this week by the conflicting points of view raised by the Crawford and Thierer articles. The arguments laid out in each closely parallel the two major schools of thought when it comes to economics - government intervention vs. limited government. I was sympathetic to the Thierer argument of free markets because in my opinion, it is both the most just argument and will allow for the maximum amount of technological progress and innovation to flow into the markets. Similarly, Net Neutrality is another justification for government intervention into the technology market and as a result, I think it would be hurtful if implemented. The only thing worse than any inequalities that come from a free market is a collective group of bureaucrats in Washington, DC attempting to legislate some concept of "fairness".

CyberRalph 17:30, 12 February 2013 (EST)

I think the idea of Google's Kansas City project is extremely enticing. The gigabit-per-second network is the next step in evolving the infrastructural standard for internet service. I think countries do need policies that lower the barriers to entry for competitors. If we create this environment, then prices should drop to a lower average price per usage with more companies providing internet service. Although there are high fixed costs for this infrastructural investment, you cannot put a price on the long term benefits of a high speed reliable broadband network.

AaronEttl 17:58, 12 February 2013 (EST)

The discussion about Internet access as a universal utility (one that should be available to every household), is an interesting one. Intertwined in the discussion of universal access to the internet is the obstacle of cost and who will pay for the infrastructure required to reach every home with access lines. In class, we discussed two sources of funding for such infrastructure: corporate funding and public funding.

A community in Lincolnshire in the UK has leveraged an alternate source of funding: private funding. When Internet Service Providers (ISP) were not willing to lay cable to reach the rural communities of Lincolnshire, individuals in the community formed a private organization to get the job done. They raised private contributions of both money and labor hours. They sought permission from individual property owners to lay cable across privately owned land rather than going to the cost of digging up and repairing roadways in order to lay the cable under public right-of-ways. This approach saved both money and time. Here is a link to the story on the BBC. Tessa May 20:02, 18 February 2013 (EST)