December 21, 2002  ·  Lessig

If you want to get an idea about how bad the broadband future will be, you need only read this letter from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association describing how good (from their perspective) the broadband future will be. NCTA wrote this letter to the FCC to criticize a letter filed by the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators. This Coalition, which includes Microsoft and Disney, told the FCC that it needed to assure that broadband remain neutral—that carriers not be permitted to discriminate in the service they offer based on the application or content the user wants.

This letter from the Coalition was great and important moment in the debate about broadband. I’ve been critical of Microsoft and Disney in the past, but they deserve all the credit in the world for taking up this fight. If neutrality is lost in the broadband platform, that means the end-to-end design of the internet will be lost as well. And that would profoundly weaken the potential for innovation and growth on the network.

The NTCA letter confirms the worst. After arguing at first that they are providing neutral service anyway (a claim which itself is false: have you checked your TOS re: servers?), they then go on to defend their right to discriminate however they wish. And they defend it by pointing to Microsoft: If Microsoft is allowed to cut special deals with partners, why shouldn’t the cable companies?

The level of ignorance here is astounding. We are four years into this debate, and apparently the cable companies have yet to even understand the argument they are attacking. The difference between Microsoft bundling products at the edge of the network, and the cable companies bundling preferred service in the middle of the network, is the difference between an end-to-end network and the Ma Bell network the internet replaced. This letter confirms that the cable companies do not begin to understand the value of end-to-end neutrality. It confirms precisely the claim of the Coalition: that left to its own devices, the dominant broadband provider in America (slow and expensive though it may be) sees no reason in the world why it shouldn’t corrupt the basic internet design.

Robert Sachs, president of the NCTA, is an extraordinarily bright man. He is also apparently a very busy man, for there is no way he could have written the letter he signed. The NCTA should spend some more money hiring press people who have taken the time to understand the arguments they want to rebut.

Meanwhile, we, broadband users of America, need to wake up to the broadband environment four years of do-nothing-ness have produced. “Open access” has been a failure in the United States (though a total success in Japan, where competition has driven prices down and service up: 100 mbs at $50 a month); the cable companies are, as we said four years ago, the single dominant provider of broadband in America. Their service is slow; it is getting more expensive; and now they claim the right to corrupt the basic design of the network they increasingly own. My last book was pessimistic: It was not pessimistic enough.

  • http://www.aaronsw.com/ Aaron Swartz

    Let’s take back the network for ourselves with wireless! Brewster Kahle seems willing to put up the money for the backbone connection; who will take up the fight?

  • Rob Woodard

    Did you expect any different position from the cable industry? The letter comes as no surprise. Neither do the positions of Microsoft and Disney. It all depends on whose corporate ox is gored, you see. You know all the arguments.

    As I am a hostage of the cable companies (my only broadband choice is cable, despite living within range of a DSL-capable central office, because of the way my neighborhood is wired), I will be forced to abide by whatever backroom deal the cable companies and “content providers” eventually agree on. The electronic frontier is closing, as surely as barbed wire closed the Old West. There’s nothing I can do about it.

  • http://home.uchicago.edu/~kldavis Karl Davis

    I’m sorry to sound trite. But, Rob, as long as you believe that there’s nothing you can do, you’re right. There certainly are other options�it�s simply your choice of convenience over convictions. I wholly agree with Aaron’s enthusiasm.

  • http://radio.weblogs.com/0100258/index.html Michael Jardeen

    Rob is correct in that MS and the Mouse are only interested in an open network because they are on the content end of the spectrum. The cable companies are interested in keeping their freedom to make as much money off this as possible (at least in their eyes).

    In a rare moment of weakness I will for once agree with Microsoft and Disney. An open neutral carrier system is in the best interest of the public. It is for that reason, that I have strongly argued for years that the rules that apply to RBOC’s should also be applied to cable companies. They should be carriers, with the option to compete in the content delivery business.

    If we do not make this policy, then we will be stuck in a broadband system that more resembles the pre-antitrust Bell System, then the advanced network we could have. I would go so far as to say that the government missed a wonderful opportunity with the Iridium network. The Feds could have bought it out from Motorola. Control of this would have given the US potential control over the only wireless broadband network spanning the globe. Consider of the implications that could of had!