Fixing the UK's broadband crisis
If you throw a rock in the air in London on any day of the working week, chances are it will land on a New Media conference. These are primarily social gatherings for the same group of academics and media hangers-on, and you can bet they'll be Twittering.
(I'm often invited - usually it's because they think I'll oblige them by saying something stupid, like "The Internets is Evil". It isn't hard to decline.)
But apart from the inanity and groupthink, these New Media sessions proudly define their irrelevance by focusing purely on the Web. Pipes and politics are boring to this crowd - so deeper structural, technical and economic issues about the "internet" are ignored. Yet the parameters of what the "Web" can or cannot do are defined by its infrastructure. The Twitterers wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the pipes.
So Spiked is to be congratulated for stepping into the battlefield with its "Traffic Jam" the other night. I was a late addition to the panel. You can skip my brief contribution - and I've raised most of these points before - by turning the page to see how the discussion unfolded.
Given seven minutes I opted to make four brief points. Firstly, I noted with dismay the tendancy to focus on the Web. The terms "Net" and "Web" had become interchangeable - but this is more than a semantic discussion. Pinching a phrase from our (first) Adam Curtis interview, I reckoned this was because the media preferred to fantasise about the world rather than report. And the politicians (and bogo-academics who advise them) simply followed suit.
Secondly, it was really important to look at where money was being generated. It sure wasn't being generated in abundance on the web by anyone except Google, which now has 85 per cent of the web advertising business. Profitable sites like the one you're reading are exceptions, not the norm. And while "data doesn't pay" is an oversimplification, it's generally true - and we should face up to it. Which means that network operators needed to think about new services we actually want to pay for - or face up to a future where net services cross-subsidised by something (like TV or voice minutes) that is reliable.
I noted two forms of escapism in this debate that I thought were just plain weird.
There's Net Neutrality, which is an issue that's been described as "Intelligent Design for the Left", for one. It's basically legislation based on technical ignorance that requires people to be nice. But Net Neut legislation tabled before Congress two years ago would have outlawed entire classes of applications, such as real-time video, and forbidden operators offering you a QoS service - something quite a few of our readers want and are happy to pay for. The Neutralists don't understand how the internet works - and would effectively freeze innovation at the 1993 state. Not a very smart thing to do. They're Luddites, really, and it's a static (and even nostalgic) view of the world.
Finally, I noted how angry Reg readers are with the whole broadband business here. But bashing the ISPs - while understandable - was really a misdirection. It simply avoided laying the blame where it should be laid: on the cosy backroom deal between the regulator and BT Wholesale, a decision which created a "market" that was designed to fail.
What intrigues me is that this anger is a consequence of the Web 2.0-topians idea of what a consumer should be able to do. How many times have you heard a web evangelist say that because we're venting on the web - we "were in control"? (The BBC and New Labour seem particularly keen on this, for some reason, perhaps because they both spend more on web consultants than anyone else.)
But this view makes caricatures of us, and leaves us powerless. We should be able to look at where power is really exercised, and be able to change it. The idea we're changing anything by getting angry and punching the first thing we see is a notion that turns democratic engagement into therapy - and leaves things as they are. That point always seems to go down well, and did here.
Now onto the debate.
Rob Killick had written a provocative piece trailing the debate, where he described all the moaning about British broadband as an example of Digital Malthusianism. Science could invent its way out of our troubles. Look closer, he said, and you saw special-interest pleading:
"What seems to be driving today's panic about an internet crunch is the needs of ISPs and media competitors, who have an interest in stoking up fear about the BBC and others causing an internet collapse, and also a general sense of cultural pessimism."
Legal academic Chris Marsden, a policy advisor on regulation, had some thoughtful points on the nuances between British and European regulation. He also had one suggestion that may make Reg readers choke: we should think about Phorm as an evil necessity that helped pay for better network infrastructure.
Journalist David Crow said that more pricing flexibility was needed, and thought it was absurd that heavy users, such as "Pete" who downloaded video and music all day, should pay the same as light users. Pete was to haunt the debate to the very end.
David added that he didn't think most people were Petes - and most people on the internet paid for their content. Now the very fact that there's a pejorative word for David - "Paytard" - tells you that a few people will disagree.
Write to him, not me.
The questions reflected the diffuse nature of the debate - the topic is so broad that we could barely skim the surface (or even mention many things). One questioner wanted government intervention in the market - while most people opposed government regulation. There was also some concern about "private networks", but as Keith McMahon pointed out from the floor - the intertubes is almost all private networks. There's Google's, there's Akamai's... even the BBC is up for it.
While I admire the Spiked crew's optimism and faith that we can invent our way out of almost any problem, we're not in a broadband pickle because of a lack of optimism or invention. How long has IPv6 been embedded in routers, and supported by the clients? Ten and five years, I reckon. Getting innovations from the lab to the market, so they're actually useful to us, is what characterises this business. Most of the players have no incentive to invest in better infrastructure, something the regulator hadn't bargained for when it "designed" the British broadband market.
So a few more shoes had to drop - I mentioned legal P2P services as an example of something that may increase demand and investment. But to be honest, I can't think of many more.
Only after the discussion closed did I realise that no one had mentioned municipal fibre. Unlike Muni WiFi, which has crashed and burned because there's no business case for it, Muni fibre projects are commercially justifiable - if they follow a cross-subsidy model. Maybe that's another debate? ®