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The elusive third wire for Internet service

By: Scott Bradner

Some of you may have noticed that I write a lot about network neutrality.  I wish it was not 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 US there is only one or two Internet service providers (ISP) offering residential Internet connections -- i.e. a monopoly or a duopoly -- if there is any high-speed service offerings at all.  A number of technologies have been touted as a potential "third wire" 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 a 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 service for lower prices.  Instead we get the major residential Internet service providers, both DSL and cable, regularly raising prices without improving services.  There would be a strong incentive for ISPs to provide neutral Internet services in an environment of actual competition because as soon as one provider decided to interfere with what it's customers could do on the Internet its competitors would advertize that they do not do the same thing in order to attract customers away from the interfering ISP.

But actual competition requires actual competitors.  Very few observers consider that big teleco and big cable do much in the way of competing, even where they both over services to the same neighborhoods.  ItŐs 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.  (See FCC: Consistent to a fault, but there is a (small) hope -  They also have been looking to new technologies to provide a "third wire" (after the phone line and cable coax) in the residential market.  Maybe with three or more providers there might be a hint of competition.  

The FCC has been pushing wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) which use WiFi 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 lines (BPL). 

A while back the FCC defined what rules BPL would have to operate under.  The rules did not make everyone happy, in particular, the amateur radio folk since 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 ( -- the court did not rule that BPL could cause interference but it did rule that the FCC did not provide a reasonable justification for its decision on what power that BPL could radiate and ruled that the FCC needed to release the full technical reports that 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 rulemaking but its far from clear that it will make much difference - BPL was failing on its own well before the lawsuit was filed - even the most optimistic numbers show that this is far from 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.