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Free, Slow, Censored Internet: A Bad Idea

The FCC is looking for an organization to provide free, slow, and censored Internet access. The censorship apparently would include email as well as websites. According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal: “Outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is pushing for action in December on a plan to offer free, pornography-free wireless Internet service to all Americans, despite objections from the wireless industry and some consumer groups [nb. and from me]... The winning bidder would be required to set aside a quarter of the airwaves for a free Internet service [nb. the WSJ hasn’t got that part quite right. More below].”

Here’s what the FCC’s NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rule Making) says:

”(a) The licensee of the 2155-2188 MH band (AWS-3 licensee) must provide as part of its free broadband service a network-based mechanism:

“(1) That filters or blocks images and text that constitute obscenity or pornography and, in context, as measured by contemporary community standards and existing law, any images or text that otherwise would be harmful to teens and adolescents. For purposes of this rule, teens and adolescents are children 5 through 17 years of age;

“(2) That must be active at all times on any type [emphasis added] of free broadband service offered to customers or consumers through an AWS-3 network.”

The NPRM is silent on which community’s standards should be used to determine what is harmful to “teens and adolescents” (I’m glad my children weren’t adolescents at five). But note that all services must be filtered for whatever it is that “otherwise[?] would be harmful”. The FCC will be the ultimate judge, however, since they enforce the terms of a license and can determine whether or not to renew. They may think my blog is harmful; I think junk science is really dangerous; you may have still some other pet peeve.

This NPRM is a reworking of a proposal by venture-backed and politically-connected M2Z networks, which was setup to provide this free (actually ad-supported) service in return for the right to also use the spectrum for subscription service and may well be the only bidder if the auction goes forward on these terms.

Let’s forget for a minute what an absolutely terrible idea it is for the government or its agent to determine what the content of our communication is allowed to be although this whole proposal SHOULD be junked just because of this. The principle DOES matter a lot but, in practice, no one is going to use the free Internet service.

The requirement is that the free service have a download speed of at least 768kilobits/second; this is the speed of the slowest DSL. This is not a mobile service where we might accept a slightly slow speed in return for mobility; it is meant to be primary residential access to bridge the digital divide. But, by the time this service actually exists, the web will not be usable at such a slow speed. Websites get designed for the capabilities of the top 50% of users; that’s why dialup is now useless for surfing even though it used to work fine.

By contrast, the Vermont legislature specified that a service won’t count as broadband at the end of 2010 unless it is at least 1.5Megabits/second AND realizing that this requirement must escalate, charged the Public Service Board with appropriate and timely upper revision. Nevertheless, this requirement stays the same in the NPRM for the full ten years of the license. 768Kbs will be as obsolete as your old 300 baud modem ten years from now; but it will be the only free service the licensee is required to offer.

The licensee has no incentive to offer better free service because it will also sell a higher-powered service. The NPRM does NOT specify that a quarter of the network capacity be used for the free service; it says “up to” an “as needed”. If no one uses the free service, then no network capacity need be devoted to it.

It’s nice to think that people who have no service will get it from M2Z; don’t hold your breath. The licensee is required to build out to 50% of the population within four years and 95% within ten. The licensee will, of course, build first where the people are and where there are plenty of other service options. The areas without adequate Internet access now might get it in ten years—and might not. Even the poor in the urban service areas won’t be helped much. They can’t use the service without a computer and a modem which M2Z estimates will initially cost $200. In urban areas DSL at this pathetically low speed is usually available for $12.95/month or less and without a requirement to purchase equipment.

There’s another interesting gotcha in the proposed regs: the paid service must be open to all devices and applications which is good. The free service, however, has no requirement that it be open to all applications. In theory the provider could charge Google, for example, to be accessible to the free users—assuming there are some which I don’t think’ll be the case.

It’s good that the FCC recognizes that previous spectrum auctions haven’t gotten the US to the point where it has the connectivity it needs. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of a “free” Internet service paid for by advertisers; in fact, I’m confident that such a service will be one of the offers that surface in the newly deregulated white spaces. The spectrum at issue is unused and that’s a waste. This proposal, however, should be rejected once on civil liberties grounds and again because the promise of free Internet access is meaningless and unhelpful.

By Tom Evslin, Nerd, Author, Inventor

His personal blog ‘Fractals of Change’ is at blog.tomevslin.com.

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A couple of quick points that have Dan Campbell  –  Dec 1, 2008 9:55 PM

A couple of quick points that have no real effect or add much value ;-)...

- I’m not sure dial-up ever “worked fine” unless you mean maybe 1995, and even then….I don’t know.  But there are still so many unfortunate people out there stuck with it.

- 300 baud modems were long since obsolete 10 years ago.  Even 28.8 and 33.6 modems in 1998 were giving way to 56K modems, so I wonder what 768Kbps will look like in 10 years.

- Why are children (or “teens and adolescents”) defined in the range of 5-17?  So if you have an astute computer-savvy 4-year old he/she can do whatever they like on the web or elsewhere?

- DSL rarely costs a true $12.95/month.  It’s usually a telco service, so add in all kinds of nickel-and-dime fees and taxes.  And that is only the DSL price; you have to pay for the phone line too, so add in another $40 or so on top of it.  Yeah, those who already have a phone line from the telco offering DSL effectively get the DSL service for just an additional $12.95+taxes, but you are then saying they accept that they really can’t use a competing voice service like Vonage (or if they do, their “DSL price” jumps to about $50/month.)  So either way it’s a compromise.

Back to the main article points…

- It’s always unnerving to have the Gov’t decide what I can and can’t view, listen to or say.  But they do it all the time, and sometimes under some circumstances it is ok.  It’s always tough in the “I can’t define it but know it when I see it” pornography world where different communities (and countries!) have different “standards”.  Many countries (yes I’ve been on the receiving end of this) look at the USA and laugh at how appalled everyone was and how the FCC came down on Janet Jackson for nipplegate and Bono for uttering the f-bomb on TV.  Many say “why the fuss”.  Standards and tolerance differ from town to town, border to border.

- I wouldn’t say that “no one is going to use the free Internet service.”  Plenty would, if not permanently then at least as a temporary adhoc service.  I would.  There have been plenty of times when I’ve had my laptop - generally on the train or subway when it’s above ground but also in other public areas - where I just wanted a quick Internet link to look something up or check/send email, but nothing major or anything I wanted to pay for.  I’d rather not have to run to a coffee shop for maybe free but sometimes pay-for-the-day service (Starbucks).  A slow and censored link would be ok sometimes.  We are often happy to find that free WAP when we are out somewhere and just want quick adhoc access, even if it has limitations like speed and having to tolerate advertising.

- I agree there should be stipulations that the winning provider cannot discriminate against sparsely populated areas.  Then again, they are a business and have to make money somehow.  There may not be fiber to lay but there is still infrastructure and operational costs.  The side effect of forcing a provider to deploy a certain way may be varying pricing tiers even based on location, or if not based on location then higher prices for those in densely populated areas to subsidize the rural areas.

- We’ve gone through this debate alot particuarly with the Comcast / FCC issue, but having an application-agnostic net neutral Internet is a nice idea in an ideal world, but until bandwidth is free and completely ahead of application and user demands, it’s dangerous because a few users can crush the bandwidth - particularly on wireless / satellite links - for everyone else.  The whole business model can fall apart easily, thus all the rate limiting / throttling / whatever you want to call P2P control and other QoS mechanisms.  They will continue to be necessary for a while.  We don’t live in an ideal world where bandwidth is unlimited.

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