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The elusive third wire for Internet service


Another setback for broadband-over-power-line and for the FCC


'Net Insider By Scott Bradner , Network World , 04/29/2008


Some of you may have noticed that I write a lot about network neutrality. I wish it wasn't an important issue, but it is.


Network neutrality exists as an issue primarily because there is little real competition for residential high-speed Internet service.
In most of the United States there are only one or two ISPs  -- that is, a monopoly or a duopoly -- offering residential Internet connections -- if there are any high-speed service offerings at all. A number of technologies have been touted as a potential "third wire" (after the phone line and cable coax) into the home, but none has shown much deployment. Now one of those has been dealt a setback -- perhaps a well-deserved one.


Historically, monopolies, as well as duopolies, of similarly minded players have had to be regulated if there is to be any assurance that customers will be provided quality service at reasonable -- at least to the regulator -- prices. The network neutrality issue revolves around the worry that Internet service, at least for residences, is one of the cases where some regulation is needed.


Actual competition tends to mean increased services for lower prices. Instead, we get the major residential DSL and cable ISPs raising prices regularly without improving services. An environment of actual competition would provide a strong incentive for ISPs to provide neutral Internet services: As soon as one provider decided to interfere with what its customers could do on the Internet, its competitors would advertise that they don't do the same thing, to attract customers away from the interfering ISP.


Actual competition requires actual competitors, however. Very few observers consider that big teleco and big cable do much in the way of competing, even where they offer services to the same neighborhoods. It's a dead giveaway when both providers raise prices in such neighborhoods, as has been happening with cable and DSL services.


The FCC has been painting a picture of competition in the residential ISP market that almost no one believes. It  also has been looking to new technologies to provide a third wire in the residential market. Maybe with three or more providers, there might be a hint of competition. The commission has been pushing wireless ISPs -- which use Wi-Fi or, maybe someday, WiMAX -- to provide a "wireless wire" to compete with cable and telephone services, but to date there has been little deployment.


Another technology the FCC has been pushing for a number of years is broadband over power line (BPL). A while back, the FCC defined the rules under which BPL will have to operate. Those rules did not make everyone happy, in particular the amateur-radio folk, because they fear that BPL will interfere with their radios. So, they took the good old American path and sued. A court just ruled that they did have a some good arguments: It did not rule that BPL could cause interference, but it did rule that the FCC did not provide reasonable justification for its decision about the power BPL can radiate, and that the FCC needed to release the full technical reports it relied on in making its decisions about BPL.


So, the FCC will have to revisit its BPL rules and provide more transparency in its rule-making. It's far from clear, however, that this will make much difference -- BPL was failing on its own well before the lawsuit was filed, and the most optimistic numbers show that it's far from being a successful technology.


So, it looks like BPL will not help us avoid the network neutrality issue -- too bad.


Disclaimer: Harvard frequently does not seem to be good at avoiding issues, but I've heard nothing from the university about this particular one, so the above observations must be mine.


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