The Next Big Cause

Now that Net Neutrality is winding down – Larry Lessig says it’s a dead political movement – Internet policy attention naturally shifts to questions about what comes next for the noisy, ramshackle movement that induced the FCC to enact regulations forbidding a range of behaviors that weren’t actually happening. One candidate is the meme that Susan Crawford is pushing that asserts a “looming monopoly” for just about everything from wireline to wireless networking, and, oh, content too. Another is a proposal for everyone to open up their Wi-Fi networks for common use, from Peter Eckersley at EFF. If history is a guide, there will be considerable FUD and misstatement of the facts around these movements.

Let’s take one scrap from the EFF’s piece on the need for open Wi-Fi:

Since 1994, the United States government has auctioned off huge portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to telecommunications companies. WiFi operates in tiny scraps of spectrum that were left over from the auctions.

Two sentences, two major falsehoods. The FCC opened up the ISM band for unlicensed use in 1985, well before the spectrum auctions started, so the ISM band that runs Wi-Fi wasn’t left over from auctions.

It’s also absurd to describe the allocations for Wi-Fi as “tiny scraps of spectrum.” Wi-Fi allocations vary by country, but in the US they consist of the following:

  1. 80 MHz in the 2.4 GHz band
  2. 40 MHz in the 3.6 GHz band
  3. 500 MHz+ in the 5.8 GHz band

Not all of this spectrum can be used all of the time or at the peak power allowed for Wi-Fi, but it’s hardly “tiny scraps;” more spectrum is allocated to Wi-Fi and other unlicensed uses than the 300 MHz or so that cellular operators can use. The major advantage of Wi-Fi is that limited propagation allows for spectral reuse, so low power in bands that aren’t attractive to commercial providers is exactly what it needs to work best.

Another thing that’s interesting about Eckersley’s proposal is its advocacy of deliberate prioritization. After telling us for the last ten years that innovation requires a common, “Best-Efforts,” delivery class, net neutrality advocates are now insisting that Wi-Fi network operators – that’s you and me and the guy next door – should offer lower priority access to free riders. Can innovation survive such a test? I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

Crawford is adding her voice to the chorus demanding government takeover of essential communications infrastructure, and it’s easy to see a direct line from Eckersley’s solution to something like a ban on volume-based pricing by ISPs, if there are going to be any ISPs in the Internet’s future. Clearly, people aren’t going to unlock their Wi-Fi networks if they’re penalized by their ISPs for allowing passers-by to download immense quantities of data.

Crawford claims to like the National Broadband Network under construction in Australia, but advocates of community networks in the US have generally criticized the GPON technology on which it’s based. Australia’s NBNCO hired Verizon’s network architect to design their system, as both NBN and Verizon FiOS use PON technology. This design makes the NBNCO an active network operator, not merely a dark fiber deployer like we find in the publicly-funded Stokab network in Sweden.

Advocates of building networks that require active operation by a government agency are in the ironic position of giving government control over essentially all the criticism of the government itself. That may not always work out very well, it’s a curious arrangement given all the free speech fears we’ve heard for the past few years.

It’s not clear whether the next Big Cause for broadband advocates will be for government-operated networks, free Wi-Fi for all, a combination of the two, or something different, but it’s a fairly safe bet that the arguments used to promote it will assume a different set of facts vis a vis such things as competition and network management than we’ve seen in recent years. The same people will be involved, however.