I'll be in Washington DC on Monday & Tuesday next week to attend David Isenberg's Freedom to Connect 2006 conference, this year a joint venture of David's isen.com and PulverMedia of VON conference fame. There are a ton of interesting people on the schedule and, based on last year's conference, there will be plenty of interesting people in the audience as well.
From the conference home page:
The future of telecommunications starts now; there's a new U.S. Telecom Bill in the works, there's new networks in Europe, fast fiber in Asia, wireless across Africa and networks a-building in cities and villages around the world. Join the discussion. Shape the debate. Assert your F2C:Freedom to Connect.
This is a US-centric conference, driven by frustrations with US policy and the fact that, while US broadband adoption has been fast (even more rapid than cell phone adoption), the US is still falling behind other nations in broadband connections, connection speeds and costs.
Of course it's public policy, so there's lots of politics and lots of muddle. Fundamentally, there are two topics, which should be independent:
- transport layer connectivity, commonly referred to as "broadband access"
- freedom to communicate electronically, a generalization of "freedom of speech"
Unfortunately, most US residents connect to the Internet using a service from a monopoly or duopoly provider, and recently, these providers have been making scary noises about content-based charging, so the two othewise independent topics become mixed and a muddle ensues. At a very minimum, the telecom monopolist has an interest is being your only viable voice telephony service provider and the cable company in being your only TV-provider. When these two compete for both telephony and TV, we move from two monopolists to a duopoly. But that's not much comfort for those of us seeking pure Internet connectivity. 15 Mbps? 100 Mbps? 1Gbps? More, more, just bring it on!
Net Neutrality - No
Many people see the problem. Quite a few, otherwise savvy, people think the answer lies in more regulation -- in Net Neutrality laws (here's one proposal) or regulations. Luckily Martin Geddes is on the program. He's a sharp cookie who should adequately kibosh the idea. And in the afternoon, there's a panel Muni Tsunami which will address one way around the problem. But I worry that no one will actually discuss the root cause of our connectivity dilemma.
Today the relevant monopoly and the only "natural monopoly" is at Layer Zero -- the physical right-of-way in front of our homes and businesses. Everything else, copper pairs, coax, fiber, is a government granted monopoly that made sense in it's day, but no more. Yes, I've heard the argument that fiber is a natural monopoly, but that argument is based on the assumption that only services are allowed. If fiber ownership (e.g. condominium fiber) is an option, or dark fiber in any form, the fiber-is-a-natural-monopoly argument falls to pieces. Many people would still chose a service provider, but the ownership option would drive enormous competition. While he doesn't talk about Layer Zero competition, Bill St. Arnaud of the Canarie Project in Canada is the most articulate spokesman for condo fiber and customer-owned fiber. Unfortunately, I don't see Bill on the agenda. Perhaps I'll have a chance to make the point by careful questions during a Q&A.