Monday, April 9, 2001

Week of 04/09/2001

Broadband - The Next Entitlement?
- by David Matthews 2

"What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. " - Herbert Simon

Okay, my high-speed information-surfing friends out there, hang tight for a second. I want to ask a question for those of you who aren’t on a DSL or cable modem or are seeing this through some corporate or college network. That’s right, I’m talking to my fellow dial-up netizens.

How would you like to have faster access to the Internet?

Hey, who wouldn’t? Once upon a time, surfing the Internet on a 56K modem was like driving down the highway in a Lamborghini. Nowadays, it’s like driving an SUV. It’s safe, but you’re just dying to keep up with the racers.

And it should be no surprise that the webmasters have been gearing their sites towards those high-speed "broadband" users with things like instant messages, high-quality streaming audio and video, and files that would take forever to download with a standard dial-up modem. What do us dial-up users get if we want to see a streaming video from someplace like MSNBC? Small, grainy, pictures that resemble more of a slide show than a video. You want audio? Well, forget high fidelity if you have a dial-up. We’re talking radio-quality.. and AM radio at that!

So yeah, I’m sure all of us would LOVE to have that broadband access, even if it means paying an extra twenty or thirty dollars a month for it.

However, contrary to the advertising that is out there, it is not easy to get. First of all, not all cable companies have the technology to provide that kind of access. We’re talking years of removing the old copper cable lines and putting in fiber-optic ones so they can handle the higher volume. Heck, it took decades for most of America to even GET cable! Now you expect them to get cable AND broadband too?

And then there’s the special line that has to be installed to your computer.. and the special modem that has to be put in your computer. Lot of extra costs involved, and lots of waiting around for the servicemen before you even get that access.

And then there’s the fact that you’re having to deal with the cable company.. which in many areas is a government-endorsed monopoly. If you have a problem with the bills, or if you don’t like the service, you’re screwed!

How about that Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL? Oh yes, it works out of existing phone lines. Don’t have to worry about getting that special line put in. It won’t interrupt regular phone service, so you can be online 24-7-365 and not miss a phone call. And unlike cable, there is marketplace competition. Best of everything, right?

Well, no. In fact, some people are calling it DSHell.. and with good reason too.

You see, unless you get your DSL connection with one of the major telephone providers, such as BellSouth, you’re having to deal with three separate companies: the DSL company that bills you, the DSL company that is actually providing the broadband access, and the telephone company. Now you can imagine the kind of bureaucratic nightmare that can come about.. and HAS come about.. trying to get a home hooked up. There have been actual cases of long waits in getting the modem installed, inability to coordinate between the three companies, and getting billed for months of service before a serviceman could even show up to get those people hooked up! In other words, a bureaucratic fuster-cluck that would make Washington DC green with envy!

And then there is the simple fact that not everyone can get DSL connections! There is a range involved in setting up something like that, and if you’re not within a certain range of a telephone switching station, you’re not going to get DSL. Period.

And now there is something new added to that mix.. the DSL providers (the actual providers, not the billing companies) seem to be going bankrupt about as fast as the dot-com businesses. They’re not making the bucks they expected to make, so they’re going out of business. Or, in some instances, the billing providers aren’t paying their bills, so they’re having to kick those subscribers out. Either way, it’s leaving a lot of paying customers - some of whom suffered months of problems getting online in the first place - scrambling to find another provider.

Then there is the satellite modem… but let’s not talk about that, shall we? Oh, okay, I suppose we’d better..

Satellite modems would be a great thing to have. After all, they offer cable-fast download speeds, and you won’t have to deal with multiple providers or phone lines.. or.. Wait a minute. I said cable-fast download speeds, didn’t I? How about the upload speed? Well, only until very recently, the satellite modems were download-only. You still needed a phone line and an ISP access to upload anything.. even it is just to tell the browser to visit a certain website or to pull up your e-mail! But like I said, that was until just very recently, when the same people who came up with digital satellite for the TV started cranking out two-way satellite modems. Expect those to hit the stores later in the year.

So what do we have? Well, let’s get brutally honest here.. we have a real life digital divide between high-speed users and the dial-ups who want to get that high-speed access, but for one reason or another cannot.

Enter… the Democratic Party!

That’s right, the same party that tried to take credit for "inventing" the Internet, and supposedly "keeping it safe" has felt your dial-up pain, and now they want to feel you up as… oh, wait a minute.. sorry.. wrong bunch of Democrats.

The Democratic Party, in this post-Clinton era, have decided that they want to make broadband access their newest welfare project. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle thinks that the federal government should start spending money to making sure every household gets broadband access by the end of the decade. So let’s see… they want a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, a computer in every classroom and library, and now broadband access in every home.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lofty goal. But what would be the trade-off?

How about the freedom we netizens take for granted?

Let’s seriously think about this for a second. One of the biggest arguments against the federal government regulating the Internet like they do radio and television is that access to the Internet is not "pervasive and intrusive." You choose to go online, therefore, you choose to bear the risks of being online.

But what would happen if the government put that online access in? Well, then the medium would become "pervasive and intrusive," and as such the federal government would be authorized to regulate that content. That would negate all of the court battles we netizens have been fighting to keep the imperial government out of our online habits.

The government’s response is that they’re right now only planning on providing funding for research and development into making that universal broadband dream a reality. They’re not talking about laying down the fiber-optics or supplying the modems… at least not yet. They’re just throwing some money about.

Well, as anyone who knows our imperial federal government will tell you, Uncle Sam does not give money away unconditionally.. unless you happen to be a defense contractor. No, there are conditions that go with those tax dollars. Faustian gifts never come for free, and one can already guess what kind of deal would be made to any broadband provider in exchange for federal funding. Uncle Sam would expect those providers to freely give up the privacy and freedom that their subscribers have enjoyed.

And mind you, it’s not just idle speculation here. This kind of give-and-take is the federal government’s stock in trade. Schools and libraries that currently enjoy their Internet access thanks to grants from the government are just now being told that they must use inaccurate filtering programs to filter out websites the imperial government deem to be "harmful to children." The National Endowment for the Arts now decides which artistic performance is "worthy" of federal funding. Even the state legislatures, Uncle Sam’s own fifty spoiled brats, have been blackmailed into changing their laws in order to continue to receive federal highway funds. These groups now know what Faustian price they have to pay to the government. How can we trust the government not to do the same when it comes to our Internet access, when it is in their very nature?

Make no mistake, the road to wide-spread broadband access is slow, but it is progressing.. and without any Faustian deals from the government. The service providers are hindered only by time and outdated infrastructures. If they wish to continue to have a medium that is free from government interference and stifling regulations and surprise conditions placed on them, they must resist any attempts by the federal government to "help" them.. because the only ones the government "helps" are themselves.

The Internet is not some government entitlement program, nor should it ever be considered one. It is a wonderful medium of communication, expression, commerce, and information, but we should never take our access to it for granted.

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