15 January 2007

Net Neutrality and Municipal Networks

Lawrence Lessig, creator of Creative Commons, has written an insightful article touching on the issue of network neutrality and municipal wi-fi. Lessig is hinting at a concept I have been thinking (and hearing) more about lately. The issue with network neutrality is the conflict of interest experienced by a monopoly or pseudo-monopoly company who both operates the physical infrastructure of the network, and provides services through the network. Competitors in the service realm are at a disadvantage because of the necessity of paying a competitor to maintain the network. The operator has the opportunity and the incentive to leverage their ownership of the infrastructure against their service competitors by manipulating rates and terms of service.

One potential solution, as Professor Lessig hints, is municipal ownership of the infrastructure. Actually, this is not just one idea. There are several workable models of municipal networks, wi-fi or otherwise, with varying degrees of public and private involvement. In some places, the city "owns" the infrastructure, but grants a franchise to a third party to operate it. In other cases, a not-for-profit organization is created or appointed to own and/or operate the network and sell bandwidth "wholesale" to service providers. (Personally, I like that model.) Some municipalities may operate the network themselves, and others grant franchises to owner/operators similar to cable companies. Any of these models has the potential to be the right fit for some city somewhere. These plans cut right to the heart of the net neutrality problem by separating the entity operating the network from the entities providing services over the network, elimiating the conflict of interest and the major incentive to abuse network ownership.

These plans can also address other first-world problems like the choking bandwidth in the last mile of delivery. Many nations in Europe and Asia have faster connections at home than we have, and more homes connected at high speeds. Faster and more broadly available network access would allow newer, better, faster services to the end user.

The only catch is, to give these ideas time to bear fruit, we have to keep the incumbent operators and their armies of lobbyists from forcing through legislation that would ban these good ideas. The telecom and cable companies who own vast infrastructure (much of it built with help from tax-payers and government protection) would rather pay lawyers and lobbyists to block competition than pay engineers and scientists to compete. They will fight to preserve their old business models even as the rest of the world passes us by with new models and new technologies.

I don't know who will decide the winner or how, but I sincerely hope that the winner will prevail based on the merits of their technology and business model in providing progressively better service to their customers, rather than political influence stifling progress for the sake of milking an aged cash cow.

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