Every morning my wife and I walk the dog around the block. This morning, down the street from us there’s a Verizon truck and a worker installing fiber to our neighbor’s house. I know that it’s fiber, not only because the guy standing on the ladder, wearing the Verizon helmet, is as cheery as a salesman, but also because there’s a colorful sign in the front yard that proclaims that Verizon FiOS is being installed. What is Verizon FiOS? I looked it up.
FiOS means that the “triple play” is on the way. FiOS handles phone traffic as well as data, and it comes bundled with your choice of Yahoo! services or MSN services. According to our friendly Verizon installer, once the Pennsylvania PUC gets out of the way, FiOS will handle TV, too. I have no idea whether the guy is right, but it sounds plausible, and the point here is the anecdote, not the law.
Is there anything wrong with this picture?
To the average Internet user (if there is such a thing), the fact that fiber can be made to seem cheaper than other broadband — for now — makes all the difference. If what advocates now call “net neutrality” is going to get any public traction, “Save the Internet” isn’t going to cut it. No one knows that the Internet is in danger, and unless the price starts going up, no one is going to care. After we talked with the Verizon guy, I started to talk about the net neutrality issue. My wife wanted to know which side the Republicans are on and which side the Democrats are on. No: it’s not a traditional partisan issue. It’s partly the present v. the future, and hierarchy v. distributed control, but it’s also money v. money. Could I explain all that in the 20 minutes that we walked around the block? Not really, and though I don’t know as much about this as Brett or Susan, I know enough to walk through the mechanics. She’s a smart person, and still, she thinks: fiber is cheaper.
So here’s a metaphor to consider. Does it work better than the tools we have now? You decide.
The telcos are trying to sell us cheap SUVs [cheap fiber] on the promise of unlimited cheap gas [better! faster! stronger! internet access]. (GM, of course, is actually doing this in the automobile world.) Of course, with telcos making deals with content providers and relying on tiered pricing to recoup their (the telcos) investments, we get stuck with the SUVs [costly to maintain, and they break down a lot], even when the cheap gas runs out [better! faster! stronger! internet access gets more! and more! expensive!]. And we know that Americans hate nothing so much as rising gas prices.
I do *not* advocate “regulating the Internet,” and I do *not* advocate styling a net neutrality solution along the lines of solutions to petroleum dependency. I *do* think that to get the mass of Americans invested in net neutrality, then a way has to be found to connect the layer-independent state of the Internet to the American way of life. Price isn’t the tool that will pry open this debate, and network economics isn’t the tool, and big company/small company isn’t the tool, and the purity of the Internet, whatever that is, isn’t the tool. The tool is an appeal to all that is selfish and parochial and retro in American culture. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do. It’s base Internet consumerism, not high-end read-write Internet consumerism, and certainly not Internet environmentalism. Cool and hip and pure — the Internet equivalent of a Prius, or fuel cell technology — can come later.