Will Bells hijack the broadband stimulus?

The issue is vital because without open access competition is limited to those large companies that can afford to build their own end-to-end networks. This is how the cellular world works, it's how cable works, and it's the opposite of the way the Internet works, where every network interconnects under a single standard.

Bell companies are working to strip open access provisions from the $6 billion broadband component of the stimulus bill now being considered in Congress.

The issue is vital because without open access competition is limited to those large companies that can afford to build their own end-to-end networks. This is how the cellular world works, it's how cable works, and it's the opposite of the way the Internet works, where every network interconnects under a single standard.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), whose largest members are Verizon and AT&T, is leading the charge against open access, as well as network neutrality. They claim these provisions would discourage investment.

The biggest player in this lobbying war is the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), of which former ZDNet blogger George Ou is a staff member.

They issued a report this week claiming the tech part of the stimulus ($30 billion, including health IT and electrical grid investments) would create 949,000 new jobs. IDC says its analysts contributed to the report.

Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge says "Congressional Internet protection starts now," noting that the Bells may try to strip out open access and net neutrality language later in the process. Or, as ITIF founder Robert Atkinson told Business Week, they could simply redefine the terms so as to render them meaningless.

But there is another way to look at it.

Visicalc co-founder Bob Frankston says the whole debate misses the point.

"Focusing purely on “broadband” is akin to looking for your lost key under the lamppost because that’s where the light is rather than where you actually dropped the key," he wrote Monday.

It’s not about the network – it’s about how we use the facilities available. It’s about our ability to create applications outside the network without having the network itself having to change to accommodate new ideas. 

Frankston proposes that all networks be a "bit commons," that what the bits do be separate from how they're moved. "By decoupling the physical facilities from the services we create sustainable self-regulating markets (or, if you prefer, business models)," he writes, feeling that he's describing a highway system to railroad tycoons.

"Today people know that they want more “Internet” so they ask for more of the same by saying 'broadband'," he concludes.  "Our future lies in universal connectivity and simplicity. We can do better than living in the past glory of telecommunications."

What Frankston is proposing -- separating what the bits do from how they get there -- is the essence of the Internet. And it is this essence the Bell mobile networks and cable operators most want to destroy, because they make more money defining bits as "services" than merely moving them.

That is the fight it seems to me we need to be having, not a scrum over dollars.

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