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F2C: My Opening Remarks

Here are my opening remarks at F2C: Freedom to Connect yesterday:

I am honored to be among so many remarkable people. We have to be remarkable people, because we have a hell of a job to do. The Internet has been given to us. It is a miraculous gift, and a boon to our lives… at least in part because it accidentally matured outside the purview of profit and loss. Now the money has arrived. If you want to see what happens when the money arrives, look at Nigeria or Venezuela or Russia or Iraq.

I challenge you to expand the discussion over the next two days. Our planet is in danger of becoming hostile to life. I’m not talking about the flooding of Miami and New York and Bangladesh. I mean that because of the carbon we humans put in the air, Earth could become Venus, a place where life can’t live. So I believe—and I put this forward as a hypothesis—I believe that we can use the Internet to conserve more atmospheric carbon than its infrastructure generates. Furthermore, I believe we can use the Internet for global participation that transcends tribalism and nationalism to end war… for discussion!

We’re a remarkable group. We’ve come from Japan and New Zealand and the Netherlands, from England and Canada and California. We’re from 23 states, and two provinces.

We’re innovators and activists, academics, investors, lobbyists, lawyers, regulators, reporters, builders of networks and a man of the cloth. Among us is a Son who brought his Father to Freedom to Connect, and a Mother who brought her Daughter. This is good—saving the Internet *should* be a family affair.

Some of us are here because they don’t think the Internet needs saving… or if it does, it needs saving from people like me, who are dissatisfied with what the telcos and the cablecos and the Bush-Martin FCC have been doing. I welcome them, because too often we only talk with our friends. I honor Richard and Scott and John and Brett for having the courage to be here. I have no illusions that anybody’s minds will change, but I look forward to their contributions to the discussion, and perhaps to some degree of mutual understanding.

The story we will tell in the next two days is not widely told. It is a story of telephone companies and cable companies, and the disruptive power of the Internet.

It is a story many of us wrote. Some of us wrote it in networks strung across neighborhoods and nations. Some of us wrote it in blogs. Some of us wrote it in C code. Some of us wrote it in The Federal Register. Some of us wrote it in a checkbook. Some of us wrote it in wrinkles on our faces and hands.

It is a story we will not find in the mainstream media, because it would be the story of their own Internet-wrought disruption… or even destruction.

It is a story of A Telephone Company that I loved, and hated, and worked for, and tried to save, called AT&T. That AT&T doesn’t exist anymore. AT&T created the digital switch, but failed to understand that when digital switching matured, it would make AT&T’s business obsolete.

It is the story of a Goliath composed of a thousand Davids. I am one of them. AT&T shaped me. It made me who I am today. Like Barack Obama, I’m of mixed heritage… half BellHead, half NetHead.

AT&T had other Davids too, who not only invented the digital switch, but also the transistor, stereo recording, photovoltaics, Information Theory, digital signal processing, C, Unix, DSL and the Cable Modem.

It is also a story of managers who didn’t understand technology so they sent consultants to Bell Labs rather risk displaying their ignorance in a personal visit.

It is the story of a corporate culture so deeply rooted that its assumptions were not only un-questioned—they were unquestionable.

It is a story of a system that couldn’t possibly be merit-based, because managers had to rise through eighteen layers of management in a 20-some-year career. It is the story of an AT&T CEO that said the Internet was a toy. It is the story of an executive who drove AT&T’s computer business into failure, then he presided over AT&T’s NCR’s failure, and then he was promoted again. It is the story of a failed credit card business, a failed cable business, millions of dollars of failed Silicon Valley partnerships, and a cell phone division that would have failed over and over if it had not been tied to such a large mother ship.

It is a story of a telephone company called Qwest that built a transcontinental fiber-optic network of unprecedented capacity, and then sold twelve fibers to create competition so capable that the competitor almost put Qwest out of business.

It is a story of hundreds of facilities based competitors that were created with the stroke of a President’s pen in 1996, and then—just a few years later—these same companies were put out of business by a million tiny pen strokes by the Courts and the FCC.

It is a story of a nation that passed a law mandating competition as a substitute for regulation, and then competition was destroyed.

It is the story of the rise of a neo-conservative economics that correctly notices the market-signalling power of money, but mistakenly denies that non-financial signals are meaningful. By this mistake, the Neo-Econs reject an 800 year old principle of common law that when you offer public services, you have public duties.

It is a story of people struggling to be free. When every major record label abandons DRM, this is a victory! When one third of iPhones are unlocked, this is a victory. When Verizon Wireless says it will accept any device, this is a victory. When Comcast abandons network management by packet forgery, this is a victory. The Neo-Econs say these are responses to market forces, but they’re WRONG. These are victories—our victories!

The struggle to keep the Internet free is just like the struggle to have our vote count, just like the struggle to control the size of our family, just like the struggle to work a 40 hour week, and just like the struggle to end stupid wars. We win, AND can’t stop fighting. Nobody’s going to say, “Hey have some more rights.” If we want a free Internet, we have to take it!

The story we will tell in the next two days is the story of the future of the Internet. It is an unfinished story. We are writing it. But we do not know how it will end.

But let me show you some technology that illustrates what is possible (Showing fiber cables on the screen).

This cable has 864 fibers.

Each fiber carry 160 different wavelengths, each wavelength can carry 10 Gigabits. The technology to do this has been in the marketplace for at least five years. This 1.6 terabit signal can go from Washington DC to Chicago without active regeneration.

How big is a gigabit? One gigabit can carry the entire conventional telephony load of a city of 100,000 people. So one fiber can carry 1600 Gbits, or 160 million people—two or three fibers would carry the conventional telephony of the entire United States.

Here’s another way to see this cable. If all 6.5 billion people on earth had a telephone, and if they were all off-hook, generating 64 kilobits a second, and all those conversations were routed to this cable, there would be 100 fibers still dark.

Now imagine this running down your street. Imagine that each house could have two or three fibers, more bandwidth than a telco in each house.

In other words, the problem is completely mis-framed. Comcast and Verizon—and even Net Neutrality Advocates—are talking how to manage scarcity. We should be talking about how to achieve abundance.

But—and there is a big but here—All of this transmission capacity takes energy. And this is a problem. Global computing and communications uses as much energy as the airline industry. We Netheads have a social duty to reduce the energy our infrastructure uses. I believe that we can go much further—I think we can use the Internet to manage energy, to cut traffic congestion, to reduce travel, to actually conserve more energy than we use. We’ll devote almost all of Tuesday afternoon to discussing this hypothesis…

How will the Internet story end?

Will a few of the smartest telephone companies, such as BT and Verizon who have the wisdom and foresight and courage to sponsor Freedom to Connect, evolve to be the abundant Internet access providers of tomorrow?

Or will the biggest telcos corporatize and homogenize the Internet in the image of Clear Channel? Will they lock it down so that personal expression and innovation are driven into an isolated ghetto accessible to only a small minority, where people must devote their lives, like monks, to gain its benefits? Will an oppressive government make the Internet so invasive that nobody creative goes there anymore?

Or will new entities, maybe cities or non-profits, but maybe new, Benkler-style forms of organization made possible by the Internet itself,
arise to build and operate the infrastructure we must have.

Or will other countries, such as Japan and the Netherlands, or maybe China or Brazil, show the way, assuming the United States is capable of seeing what they put in front of our collective face?

Welcome to Freedom to Connect. I can’t wait to see how the story of the Future of the Internet evolves over the next two days!!!

But before we begin, I would like to thank our courageous and foresighted sponsors: Google, BT, Verizon, Magic Jack, The Sunlight Foundation. Also, thanks to our organizational partners , OneWebDay, NATOA, The New America Foundation, The Mozilla Foundation. Thanks to our tech support sponsors: Atlantech Online, 37 Signals, The Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

By David Isenberg, Principal Prosultant(sm), isen.com, LLC

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