Congress is looking at putting anywhere from $6-9 billion into broadband as part of the stimulus bill.
Not what advocates like Free Press want. (They were looking at more like $44 billion.) But a lot more than I was thinking of, namely, zero.
This is not to say I hate broadband. I love me some broadband, the broader the better. I just happen to think that competition is a better tool for getting it than any subsidy.
Which leads to one word, the one word by which I will measure whether this is money down a rathole or something significant.
You may think that an obvious word, but the Internet is not the only network, not the only networking scheme out there. It is, for its operators, the least-profitable scheme we have. Cellular systems, which are controlled by carriers, are much more profitable. Cable networks, which are also controlled by carriers, are also very profitable. Even plain old telephone service can make a buck.
The Internet is often described as a protocol, but its importance is the financial agreement inherent in it. Gen. Jack Ripper would describe it as an exchange of precious bodily fluids. Networks peer, they pass traffic, and only later does anyone get out their checkbook.
Before the government-subsidized Internet developed a service called the World Wide Web, in the early 1990s, carriers were far more interested in systems like X.25 and its big brother, X.400, where this basic financial agreement did not exist. If you wanted to move X.25 packets it was pay first, then move, and if you wanted into the game you had to be approved by the other players, and pay more.
Under the Internet Protocol any network which can understand IP can inter-operate. My home network can link to a business' network can link to the phone network can link to a strictly IP network. These words were routed over a half-dozen or more networks on their way to you -- try a traceroute -- and it all went down seamlessly.
Because of this seamlessness, which we now take for granted, many miracles are possible. But, as I said, most of the profits from all this business does not flow to the carriers, because the Internet is designed to be highly competitive and due to Moore's Law of Fiber (DWDM), a fiendishly-clever technology that lets one light strand carry hundreds of lanes of traffic, at light speed, due to a miracle called colors.
Over the last decade, however, the carriers have succeeded in pocketing all the gains of Moore's Law for themselves and leaving you paying the same money for bits you did a decade ago. Mainly they have used the government, but they are now implementing technology in their networks that's something like the new "toll" lanes on urban freeways. You pay, you get speed. You don't pay, you don't get speed. Under this scheme you will actually pay more for speed that costs less than you did a decade ago. Neat trick. It's only possible when you're a monopolist.
And now, finally, we get back to the stimulus bill. The House wants to define real Internet as offering open access and network neutrality, and it wants to define "advanced broadband" as 15 megabits or more each way. The Senate bill offers more money but it's vaguer.
(To the left, a map of the Internet done at Bar-Ilan University and posted at The Guardian's blog in 2007.)
There's also a difference in the two proposals over who would control the money. The House wants to give power to the Agriculture Department, believing that rural facilities are where the money should go. The Senate gives control to the NTIA, which ran things during the Clinton years and has a whole bunch of unfunded ideas going back a decade.
In some ways, the second difference leads to the first. If a non-tech agency like Agriculture is to get the money it needs to be told what it's for. The NTIA folks know.
The real question is who eventually gets the cash and for what. Will these be true Internet networks, a completely free market, or will these be private networks, like the cellular and cable networks, regulated by the carriers for their own profit. After a decade of broken promises by carriers and subsidies placed into pockets by carriers you know where I stand. If this money goes to the carriers, and demands are not placed on them to put it into real Internet service, we'll be right back where we are five years from now, only $9 billion poorer.
I really think we can do better just breaking up the Bells, but if we're going to put our money into this, let it be for Internet services, and only for Internet services.