A Progressive Broadband Agenda

Ev Ehrlich, a former  Clinton Administration Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs who frequently contributes to this blog, has outlined an Internet policy agenda for progressives in a paper sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute. The paper, titled “Shaping the Digital Age: A Progressive Broadband Agenda,” argues that progressives have a choice to make regarding broadband and Internet regulation. While the Clinton Administration’s Internet policy was focused on competition and innovation, in recent years there’s been a concerted effort by some who would lay claim to the progressive mantle to discard this essentially deregulatory approach in favor of a framework that pours Internet policy into the bottle made to contain the monopoly telephone network in the 1930s.

Arguments for “net neutrality” and “common carriage,” limits on spectrum transactions and mandated spectrum sharing are actually attempts to treat the broadband network infrastructure as if it were the same sort of seamless monopoly that telephone service was in the 30s. They can only succeed to the extent that their advocates can convince regulators that the old “stovepipe” systems that applied a unique set of rules on each communications technology from application to network still make sense. This is a hard case to make in today’s world, one in which Internet Protocol is the lingua franca of electronic communication and multiple applications run over multiple network technologies thanks to the integrating power of IP.

What’s at stake here is nothing less than the opportunity to innovate. Of course, clever entrepreneurs took the PSTN well beyond its original purpose by replacing telephone handsets with modems and implementing fax machines, auto-dialers, security alert systems, and transaction terminals in the 1970s and ’80s. But this kind of innovation hit a wall twenty years ago when the PSTN’s basic inability to deliver high bandwidth to dial-up modems became a limiting factor. We’re now facing constant increases in bandwidth, reductions in latency, and increased ubiquity in networks all over the world, and a corresponding explosion in applications that use the new capabilities.

While some argue that we can simply do away with regulation altogether and rely exclusively on market forces to drive network utility everywhere, Ehrlich maintains that a “middle way” between too much and too little regulation is the right path. That’s the line that ITIF takes as well, and it’s the only sensible approach to a vitally important technology that is the focus of substantial competition in nearly every market. In fact, the attempt to impose telephone-era regulations over competitive infrastructure is nothing more than a swing and a miss. There isn’t a monopoly deal for guaranteed profits in exchange for universal service any more, and there’s not going to be one in the future. We wouldn’t want that dynamic even if it were on the table since it would foreclose too many better alternatives.

Ehrlich is mainly an application-focused analyst, who quite correctly roots for more and better ways to use networks in the reasonable expectation that application requirements and appeal are the best ways to shape future networks. He calls this “cage-match competition” where the focus is to build the next platform that applications are written to; a platform these days is more likely to be something like Twitter or Facebook than a specific network.

The cage-match vision accomplishes something that’s pretty exceptional by making the middle of the policy spectrum exciting. Generally speaking, there are three kinds of people or three kinds of views about the future: in the middle, there is a relatively small group that wants to be told that things are going well when they are going well, and also wants to be told when things are not going well so that something can be done to turn them around. This group is flanked on the one side by the pollyannas who simply want to be told that everything is going to be fine regardless, and on the other by a group that’s firmly convinced that we’re all going to hell unless we change our ways.

The trouble with policy is that all the melodrama is on the extremes, and the boring middle tends to put people to sleep. Ehrlich enlivens the middle by drawing out the competition and the drama of real entrepreneurial life that takes place in platform competition.

Understanding his vision takes some work, however. It’s much easier to follow the Tim Wus, Susan Crawfords, and Harold Felds on the extreme left who are so over-concerned about the little things we lose when we improve our technologies that they end up retarding the pace of progress; it’s also easy to go with the free market libertarians and authoritarians on the right who insist that we lose nothing at all than to take the more sober and reasonable path down the middle.

In fact, there is very little about the dynamics of the network marketplace to distinguish it from any other market. Over time, fortunes will be won and lost as new products and services become dominant and old ones recede and die. Fax machines were a big deal in the ’80s and early ’90s, especially in Asia where non-Roman alphabets made the telex hard to use. Back in those days, I was an engineering VP at a fax modem company, but today I don’t even own a fax machine, fax modem, or any other kind of fax device. I have the constituent parts, however: a scanner, a laser printer, and a network connection, so I can do the things I used to do with a fax machine by scanning, printing, and emailing attachments. You probably do too. The fundamental platform for post-fax machine document scanning and transmission is Adobe’s PDF format, Acrobat reader, and PDF printer. We can enjoy all the advantages of paper documents with none of the disadvantages.

Yet the hard core network policy theorists on the left – especially Feld – are up in arms about the inability of Verizon’s Voice Link system to support obsolete fax machines across post-Sandy Fire Island. At a policy discussion of the IP transition at the Center for American Progress today, Feld bashed Voice Link for its inability to perfectly replace the legacy PSTN, ignoring its transitional nature. This is like a defense attorney trying to free his client from a murder rap on a technicality, a very poor way to make policy.

Contrast that backward-looking view with Ehrlich’s view of wireless technologies:

In fact, in direct contrast to the advocates who claim that only wireline will suffice for such future applications as telemedicine, remote education and training, job search, and the like, all of these could end up on mobile platforms in coming years, while the exceptionally high speeds only available through landlines could end up being a specialized, premium product. Wireless is already a growing medium for such tasks as watching video and doing homework. And as it grows in power and popularity, it would be irrational to believe that employers, retailers, schools, service providers, and other institutions won’t figure out how to configure their services so that they can be provided over wireless networks and devices. Thus, while activists claim that only a high-speed, wireline connection will suffice, consumers are moving in an entirely different direction, towards wireless.

Night and day, isn’t it?

The choice for progressives is between a vision of the Internet that sees it as simply a faster telephone network and one that sees it as the enabler of more rich set of networks and applications that are, in many cases, impossible to dream up on the old telephone network at any speed.

So the battle isn’t just about faster networks, it’s about more kinds of networks that let us do more things. Speed is simply a side-effect of building network to serve innovation. Check out the paper, it’s a good read.