FCC's National Broadband Plan: There is a dark side

Yesterday, the FCC unveiled its new National Broadband Plan. Gee, another new government plan. What could possibly go wrong?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Yesterday, the FCC unveiled its new National Broadband Plan. Gee, another new government plan. What could possibly go wrong?

For one thing, anytime there's a far-reaching government program announced, all manner of vested interests get into the game. We've seen it with the health care debate. Who can forget this summer's tea parties and the panic over death panels?

So, when it comes to the National Broadband plan, where will it all spin out of control?

Don't get me wrong. As techies, there's no such thing as too much broadband. To us geeks, there can't be too much bandwidth. Heck, if we could possibly turn nose rings into tiny servers, we would.

But there is a dark side. First, you gotta know that the minute FCC Chairman Julius Genachowskimentioned providing broadband to another 100 million DVD-buying-cause-they-can't-watch-Hulu-yet Americans, some movie industry executives somewhere went full-goose bozo.

And that's even before Julius mentioned those juicy upload speeds of 100 megabits per second. Can you say BitTorrent? Sure, I knew you could. Now, think about the FCC's stated goal of "access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools."

In schools all across America, there will be armies of teenagers who'll use their schools' increased bandwidth to share every movie and every TV show ever digitized. After all, if it takes less than ten minutes to download a full-length movie, why not? Yes, I know, there's software to prevent that. Do you seriously think any security software can stand up to an army of teenagers who want free movies?

Somewhere in Hollywood, an accountant in an overpriced suit just screamed into his latte.

Where else could this thing go off the rails?

Safety in dial-up

First, if we really do bring another 100 million people into the 21st century, you know there's going to be security issues. Remember back, before broadband? We had viruses, sure, but they were distributed by loading an infected floppy disk into a PC. We didn't have anything resembling the malware -- not to mention such beasts-of-broadband like botnets -- we now experience by being constantly connected to the feed 24/7.

These 100 million newbies don't stand a chance. They've effectively been shielded by one of the best anti-spyware and anti-malware systems ever invented -- dial-up. If we bring these people into the broadband world, we're going to need to beef up our security across the board.

The smart grid

And then, there's Goal #6. Goal #6 says, "Every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption."

Uh oh.

In that one sentence, there's a lot of stuff going on. First, there's the idea that Americans can log into some site and see how their energy is being used, sort of a public utility equivalent to Microsoft's Hohm service.

Then there's the whole smart grid thing, where our gas and electric meters become nodes on the Internet. Those babies are going to save utilities a ton, because instead of sending out meter readers (and deploying -- and employing -- all those people in trucks), they can just download usage data from each meter.

You can just smell the security problems, can't you? Are we going to need to update the anti-malware software in our meters each week? What about meters that live in the grid for so long, they become the IE6 equivalent of ugly and unsafe?

Imagine what a denial of service attack would be like in the middle of a Montana winter, when someone remotely turned off your power.

Can you hear me now?

And then there's the issue of service providers. The FCC clearly recognizes the problem of getting connectivity to the far reaches of rural America. They understand that some high-speed broadband might have to be wireless -- and so then we're looking at whether our mobile communications vendors are up to the task. (The iPhone's quality of service, or lack thereof, comes to mind.)


Next up is the question of privacy and POTS (plain ol' telephone service). We're already seeing many Americans shed their wired phone lines for the static and dropped call "convenience" of cell phones. But as broadband reaches the dial-up set, they're going to start trading in POTS-line phones for VOIP, and so, suddenly, even more of American voice traffic will be up there, on them Internets, where conversations can be intercepted, recorded, stored, and analyzed.

Better living through someone else's drugs

Another element of the plan is more efficient health care through better data capture. There is no doubt that better IT makes for better care. I know nurses who've told me that charting software in one hospital is vastly better than the charting software in another hospital -- and that affects their patient engagement time and quality of care.

But health care records are also growing targets for identity thieves. In 2007, BusinessWeek described the problem this way: "For $60, a thief can buy your health records -- and use them to get costly care. Guess who gets the bill?" As more and more of our health care records go online, trading in medical records isn't just being done to get health care. It's also done by unscrupulous doctors and HMOs, hoping to increase their income with a very illegal get-quick-rich scheme.

Show me the money

Building out this infrastructure is going to be very costly. The FCC claims it'll be revenue neutral by selling some radio spectrum and through private investment. There will be infrastructure issues, including relatively basic stuff like making sure there's access to rooftops, rights-of-way, conduits, and poles to hang wires off of.

Who ya gonna call?

The bottom line is this: broadband for everyone is important in America. In the days of dial-up, the digital divide wasn't quite as pronounced, and the Internet itself hadn't yet become such an indispensable part of everyday life. But today, broadband is the Internet and the 100 million Americans who don't have access to it are losing out. They don't have access to employment opportunities, to lower-cost communications infrastructure, to educational opportunities, and to potentially life-saving services.

But as we expand that infrastructure, whether by government mandate or because Google got bored one afternoon, we're going to need to make sure we keep our fellow citizens safe and secure online.

That job, boys and girls, doesn't fall to the government. That job falls to us techies. So load up your thumb drives, pack some cookies, and be prepared for more house calls.

That there Internet is comin' to the rest of 'merica and you're the ones they're going to call to teach them about that tweety thing and help them understand what all the fuss is about "the Facebook."

Ain't progress grand?

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