Open access benefits everybody

The FCC’s 700 MHz spectrum auction got a little more interesting last week when Google told the world they would bid a minimum of $4.6 billion provided certain conditions were met. This is a very important move that could actually help the people who “lost” the spectrum in the first place – broadcasters.

Before I get into this, a disclaimer: I’m not a spectrum expert, but I have a pretty good bullshit detector. I’ve also commented for years about how Europe and Asia are beating the crap out of us in applications of third-generation cellphone technologies and broadband networks. You need to look no further than our beloved incumbents in the telecom industry to assign blame for that, and these are the same folks who want and need that spectrum to maintain their grip on certain forms of communication. Every claim by anyone in this debate, therefore, is self-serving, with the exception of the small group of voices pushing for open access.

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s idea of open access really isn’t open at all, but Google’s proposal is. In a truly open broadband network, anybody could play. In the incumbent’s view — and in that of several other entities involved in the auction — they would determine who could play based upon how much money would be involved. This is the same closed-network concept that has driven our wireless systems to the competitive basement worldwide.

If Google is successful, however, broadcast companies will have much more flexibility in creating business models that use spectrum that used to belong to them in the first place. The irony of this is stunning.

For the uneducated about the whole spectrum matter, here’s a nice primer from Om Malik a few months ago. Om provides a 10-step explanation, what he calls “a little cheat sheet.” It’s a good read.

And regarding the Google bid, Michael Arrington at TechCrunch has a terrific summary that includes the four conditions that Google is “recommending.”

  1. Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
  2. Open devices: Consumers should be able to utilize a handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
  3. Open services: Third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  4. Open networks: Third parties (like internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee’s wireless network.

But the Arrington piece nails the BS in the incumbents’ response:

AT&T’s response to Google’s letter was breathtaking in its audacity:

Not satisfied with a compromise proposal from Chairman Martin that meets most of its conditions, Google has now delivered an all or nothing ultimatum to the U.S. Government, insisting that every single one of their conditions “must” be met or they will not participate in the spectrum auction. Google is demanding the Government stack the deck in its favor, limit competing bids, and effectively force wireless carriers to alter their business models to Google’s liking. We would repeat that Google should put up or shut up–they can bid and enter the wireless market with any business model they prefer, then let consumers decide which model they like best.

For anyone who doesn’t look too closely at the issue, AT&T’s response seems very reasonable: keep government regulation out of the spectrum let the market decide which services win. But that isn’t really what would happen at all. If fewer government restrictions are placed on the bandwidth the auction winners will be able to extract more profits at the expense of competitors and consumers. So naturally they don’t want to see open access rules like those recommended by Google. The incumbents also don’t want to see Google play in their sandbox and bidding against them – so they have yet another reason to oppose their proposal.

As the leader in the open internet world, Google stands to benefit in a purely open wireless world, but so will we all. Big or small, a level field of play will mean an explosion of creativity and applications that we can’t even imagine today. Just look at what has taken place in the 802.11 spectrum (Wi-Fi) since the FCC made that truly open. From your cordless phone to your home wireless network to hotspots in various public and private locations, all are there using “free” spectrum.

This is an enormous political minefield for Washington with billions of dollars at stake. Thankfully, a lot of extremely well-informed people are paying attention on behalf of the (relatively) shallow pocket folks in the country.

If it walks like a monopoly…

Now that Ma Bell has been put back together, it’s wishing to reinstate itself as the dominant player it used to be. The company is trying to sneak its way to top dog status by garnering exclusive arrangements with major players like Apple, and now its involved in a new, seditious attempt to harness the web and police the behavior of its own customers.

The latest effort involving the web has stirred up a hornet’s nest of negative reaction, especially from those who wish to keep the internet free (like, everybody?). A Los Angeles Times interview with AT&T senior VP James Cicconi reveals that the company is working with movie studios and record companies to create and implement anti-piracy technologies at the network level. As Geoff duncan of Digital Trends News writes, this is a first.

The announcement…opens a host of technical, ethical, business, and consumer privacy issues the company will have to deal with even assuming it can develop the type of technology it envisions. In essence, AT&T would assume the role of “copyright cop,” deciding what content can and cannot traverse its networks.

AT&T apparently believes that by engineering a network which is “safe” from digital piracy, the company will gain an upper hand in negotiations and distribution deals with movie studios and record labels as the digital media juggernaut continues to accelerate. If AT&T can make the argument that offering digital media on its network will not contribute to digital piracy, the company may be able to leverage exclusive deals from content providers and possibly charge a premium for distributing media over its network.

Sounds all nice for corporate friends, but what about you and me? I mean, who wants their ISP snooping on their online activity, except those from the same old world of command-and-control?

Doc Searls doesn’t like it a bit, saying “AT&T, please go to hell.”

If I were an AT&T customer today, and I had any other choice of service provider, I’d drop AT&T like a bad transmission. In fact, if you’re an AT&T customer, I suggest you do exactly that. If you can.

Dave Winer has similar thoughts.

If there were a death penalty for corporations, AT&T may have just earned it.

David Weinberger’s assessment is even more pointed.

Putting a cop in the middle of the network and making available content not accessible by other networks means that if the AT&T says it’s offering Internet connectivity, it’s lying.

The Internet is a set of protocols that ensure that bits will be moved across networks (inter-networking) without giving special privileges or control to the carriers.

And Duncan Riley at TechCrunch calls AT&T “American Tracking & Takedown.”

There’s something very, very wrong when a company starts conspiring against its users. Perhaps the days of the customer being always right have passed? Certainly there will be many AT&T customers who will soon (be) looking for internet access from alternative providers

Of course, I’m in agreement with this, and I have AT&T internet experience to back it up.

AT&T is trying to build itself on the products and services of others. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but they offer nothing original. They bought Cingular and now will be the exclusive dealer of iPhones for five years. That alone will keep me from buying one (and I don’t think I’m alone). I’m a Verizon guy.

My apartment complex in Grapevine, Texas has an exclusive deal with AT&T to provide phone, “cable” and internet. The cable comes from DirectTV and Verizon lines provide the DSL. DirectTV would be fine, if I had my own dish, but when the signal is spread out over hundreds of units, all kinds of little annoyances come into play. I’m also not a big fan of DSL, and I’ve had my share of problems.

AT&T “works” only when it is a monopoly, and that’s what it wants once again. Otherwise, people flee the scene like doves scrambling to get away from a Red Tailed Hawk. I’m moving in another couple of months, and the fact that my home entertainment and communications is tied to AT&T is — believe it or not — a big reason why.

I wonder how many of their “customers” are in such forced arrangements.

Turning wireless into pipes

Doc Searls is the leader in trying to get us to see that the web cannot and should not be viewed only as a series of pipes through which pass content.

I’m tired of hearing the Net referred to as a “medium”. Same goes for “social media” such as blogs, wikis and IM. Yes, packets go through the Net. In an almost-literal sense, Senator Stevens is right that it’s a system of “pipes”.

But the Net is pure infrastructure. We work on it, just as we work on the electric power grid, the road system and our water and waste treatment systems, all of which also support the transport of stuff (electrons, cars, water, waste).

The status quo wishes us to see it entirely as a transportation system, because there’s money in offering services in tiers, and you need everybody to accept their understanding in order to pull it off. This is at the heart of the net neutrality debate.

Well, I just got back from a series of meetings in a conference room at a Hilton hotel here in Dallas, during which the hotel wanted us to pay for wireless internet access on a per-user basis. Here’s the scenario:

There were 11 of us in a small conference room with a table that seated 12. Naturally, we all wanted access to the net, but the charge for that was $175 per person! That’s $1,925 for internet access for the group. We (I) pitched a fit, and they agreed to cut it significantly, but it was still far more than what we were willing to pay.

Access in a room at the hotel is $12, but $175 for the same access in one of the conference rooms. “It’s standard in the industry,” I was told by the frightened girl I confronted in Conference Services (this challenges the meaning of that word). Can anybody say rip-off?

In order to get away with this kind of “service,” the hotel needs to convince everybody that internet access must be charged on a user basis, because each user requires a separate pipe. This is nuts, and it’s why Doc and many others are fighting for control of the lexicon that is being written rewritten daily.