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Fast bits as a right for the masses?
By Scott Bradner
U.S. President George W. Bush pushed at the end of last month for "a national goal for broadband technology" that would ensure "a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007." A laudable goal indeed but a goal that we just might have to cross a chasm or two to reach.
President Bush brought up this "bold plan for broadband" during a speech to first-time homebuyers in New Mexico. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/03/print/20040326-9.html) He said that the more broadband users there were in the U.S. "the more likely it is America will stay on the competitive edge of world trade." He also mentioned that impact of increased users on broadband to innovation in education and to the ability to 'be able to have interesting new ways to receive doctors' advices in the home." He also said that: "we don't need to tax access to broadband."
Not to be outdone, Senator John Kerry, President Bush's rival for the White House has his own plan for making broadband available on urban and rural America by mimicking the successful rural electrification program. (http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/tech/) Senator Kerry's web site also notes that: "Economists have estimated that widespread, high-speed broadband access could increase our national GDP by as much as $500 billion annually by 2006."
The idea that high-speed Internet access should be a national goal is not a new one. A number of years ago the U.S. Congress told the FCC to ensure that high-speed access (politicians say "broadband" these days because its even harder to define) be available to all Americans in a timely manner. I've written on this topic in the past. (
There are some quite real problems that will have to be overcome to reach anything like President Bush's goal. The biggest problem is one of cost. The FCC found that few people were willing to pay all that much for high-speed Internet access. President Bush's solution is competition to force down prices. Considering what the underlying service costs to provide it seems to be that competition, by itself, will be enough.
Just as big a problem, but not often mentioned, is what the functionality that the broadband service will provide. If the broadband pipe is going to drive innovation the pipe cannot be one that is full of filters and diversion valves. What got us to where we are in Internet technology is the ability for anyone to run any application they want to run without having to ask permission from the Internet service providers or to pay extra to be able to run some applications. The pipes have to be able to be open pipes. Yes, that does raise security risks but letting the pipe providers use mitigating this risk as an excuse to disable innovation on the part of the users is too high a price to pay. We will not get the benefits of innovation if we are not allowed to innovate.
The other thing that is needed to enable innovation is the ability for users to put up their own servers, such as web servers, VoIP servers and servers for yet undeveloped applications. This requires that users be able to get enough fixed (not dynamic) IP addresses to avoid the need to use network address translators (NATs). There are plenty of IPv4 addresses currently available to provide every currently connected household with enough fixed IP addresses to more than adequately serve their needs and the supply of addresses expands more than 4 billion fold when IPv6 gets deployed.
By all means let's embark on a bold plan for broadband, but let's also do what is needed to ensure that the plan will enable the desired innovation instead of turning Internet users into captives of the carriers and content providers.
disclaimer: Harvard sees stately progress as bold plans but has not expressed a view on broadband to all Americans.