Broadband … with Meaning
17 December 2013

by tmartin on December 17, 2013

JUST UNDER 30 YEAR AGO my grandmother asked for help. Handing me a bill from “the phone company,” she asked if I had any idea what it meant.

There it sat in my hand, invoice spaghetti, the product of the 1984 AT&T break up that left normal people in unglamorous locations with the primary benefit of … well, confusing bills.

I had no ready answer.

As I sat in the New England IP Transition Conference at Suffolk Law School in Boston the other week, that long forgotten moment popped into my head.

While conference attendees from industry, government, consumer advocacy, and academia were digging into that meaty, if esoteric, topic of the shift from traditional telecommunications to Internet-protocol based networks, I kept remembering that bill and the question behind it.

As all these book-smart people were talking about the fiber, digital, data-is-data networks which have been replacing older infrastructure and waving a final, technical goodbye to the age of Ma Bell, I wondered, indeed, what it had all meant.

But then, on the second panel of the day, Granite Telecommunication’s Sam Kline hit the pause button. His company’s small business and retail customers use 1.3 million phone lines – yes, basic ordinary phone lines. And it turns out they were responding to the much ballyhooed transition much like my grandmother years ago.

His customers don’t dislike digital solutions. They aren’t against fiber. The have embraced all sort of 21st century tools. But they ask: Why? Why spend more to redo what already works?

Some of us get all wound up in the technology and in no time flat hurtle down the rabbit hole of fascination with how widget B interacts with clever solution Z, when in reality most people just … WANT IT TO WORK. Period.

No question at all that the technology behind communication networks is changing. Almost daily, new structures and designs replace the old, as copper hands off its crown to fiber and as analog fades into the mist of history while one digital ring rules them all. But, in all the excitement, are we in danger of missing the point of the transition?

“It’s not the kind of network that matters, “ said Harold Feld from advocacy group Public Knowledge in a later panel, “But that whatever the network is meets a certain basic level of requirements.”

Feld, and a number of other speakers echoed the initial policy statements from the new Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler (http://www.fcc.gov/leadership/tom-wheeler), whose early December presentation at Ohio State University and just-published e-book set out in no uncertain terms the public value of this network transition – and try to lead with “why this matters and what it means”

“As FCC Chairman, I see myself as the public’s advocate in the midst of an historic revolution,” he told his OSU audience (http://www.fcc.gov/document/remarks-fcc-chairman-tom-wheeler-ohio-state-university)

His e-book presents a scenario which frequent readers here already know: that networks created by the technologies of communication and transportation shaped and defined history.

Each of the preceding changes enabled by print, transportation and electronic communication were destabilizing and redefining. We should expect nothing less today,” he writes.

But that statement forms only part one. Part two suggests much more.

What is clear about our network revolution, however, is that the new information networks are the new economy. Whereas earlier networks enabled the economic activities of their eras, our network revolution defines virtually all aspects of the current economy,” he continues.

In other words, we don’t just use the network to do the thing … instead, all the things we do are the network. It is us. We are it.

That brings with it a societal responsibility, a Network Compact, says Wheeler, describing this compact as a framework for the basic rights of consumers and the basic responsibilities of network operators. The compact provide a natural accompaniment to a successful transition into this new age.

Wheeler proceeds to lay out a parallel trio of policy pillars:

  1. Policy should promote economic growth and national leadership.
  2. Policy should create a Network Compact between those who provide the pathways and those who use them.
  3. Policy should encourage and enable the public purpose benefits of our networks.

He seems primed to take on the issues of access and interconnection – explicitly listing them as elements of the network compact.

Assuring the Internet exists as a collection of open, interconnected facilities is an appropriate activity for the People’s representatives,” he writes.

In my mind, I’m looking at the old phone bill again. The one that came about when AT&T got divided into chunks in the name of of competition and presumably for the benefit of said competitors.

What did it all mean?

Even today, I can’t fully answer that question, but I am heartened that as the next wave of transition slushes over us, people from the FFC chair on down perhaps wonder the same thing.

At least that’s how I’m taking it when I read Wheeler’s words, as he concludes:

Broadband for the sake of broadband is an empty goal. As we have seen, the importance of networks is not the technology itself, but what the technology enables.

So let’s take that notion seriously – let’s take the network and make it what we – our community, our economy, and our world – need it to be! Let’s not be standing here 30 years hence scratching our heads and wondering … “Is that all there is?”

Broadband and the networks behind it lie empty; the element that really matters, the thing that defines “what does it mean” is all those still-to-be-created innovations and activities that the networks enable, the products and services and creations that we’re still dreaming up and going forth to create.

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