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Vint Cerf Comments on Government's Role in Internet Broadband Access

Some offhand comments by Google's Vint Cerf at a recent event seem to have a triggered a panicky "Vint Cerf proposes nationalizing the Internet" buzz that's been ramping up fairly rapidly.

Holy BitTorrent, Batman! Army paratroopers seen dropping into parking lots at AT&T and Comcast, while the Transportation Security Agency orders us all to remove our shoes before surfing the Web! Settle down, everyone. As usual with these kinds of stories, the truth is significantly different from the breathless buzzing.

Here's how Vint described his thinking on this issue to me, presented verbatim. And I'll note right here that I agree 100% with his analysis. If the Internet is really the essential infrastructural and economic pillar that is claimed all around, it's time that we started treating it that way.

Comments from Vint Cerf:

"In a NYC event called Personal Democracy Forum, the question of broadband access came up. There isn't enough facilities based competition in broadband and in my opinion there isn't likely to be. I expressed the opinion that perhaps the Internet should be treated more like the road system. You don't have multiple roads going to your house for example. Instead, it is a common resource. I said something like "maybe we should treat the Internet more like the road system."

The discussion went on and the point was made that the incentives for the present set of broadband carriers (basically the telcos and the cable companies) stemmed from their origins as purpose-built networks. Telephone nets were designed and built to deliver one service: telephony. Cable systems were built for one purpose: to deliver television.

In that context [and although it was not said, given the monopoly characteristics of each] the FCC separately regulated them. This worked reasonably [some might disagree] as private sector systems each oriented around a single service. The rules were organized around how that service was to be provided including the network built to deliver it. The Internet service, however, has been treated as a title I information service. There is no regulation.

Moreover, the Internet is not purpose built for one application. It is capable of supporting a wide range of applications. A problem arises with the provision of Internet service via the telephone network and the cable network. The carriers of these services seem to feel that because they own the resource and because the Internet service is unregulated, they can impose any rules they like and constrain users of the services however they wish. There is inadequate competition to discipline this market.

If broadband service is essential to the national economy and to citizens, given the present means by which it is implemented, and given that it appears unlikely that the usual competitive pressures will lead to discipline among the competitors, perhaps we need new national rules to assure that the service is openly and equally accessible to any application provider and to all users. Equal does not mean that everyone pays the same amount. In particular, higher capacity might be priced at a higher rate. Provision needs to be made, however, to deal with high cost (to the provider) areas using a new form of Universal Service or some other subsidy.

I would not rule out municipal networks that citizens decide to build through bond processes (usually meaning the private sector is engaged to build and probably operate). Some of us have termed this kind of open access rule making "horizontal" regulation since the openness is intended to be along the Internet service layer. Applications and services provided above that layer can be highly competitive and provided by any application provider on the network.

In the UK, BT has been split into a wholesale Internet business and a retail business. Anyone can buy raw Internet service at wholesale and then operate any application service above that. Capacity is priced based not on bytes transferred but on maximum rates of use (usually capped). The idea is to provide new incentives for broadband Internet providers to keep the system open to new applications and to promote substantial competition, not at the facilities base but above the IP layer. At present, the incentives do not favor such a posture."

End of Vint Cerf's Comments.

This post cross posted here from Lauren Weinstein's blog.

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Vinton Cerf, Co-designer of the TCP/IP Protocols & the Architecture of the Internet

Share your comments

How is that different? Richard Bennett  –  Jul 07, 2008 2:33 AM PST

The regulatory model Cerf seems to be endorsing is indistinguishable from government ownership, because it's total government control. It does not appear that Cerf was misquoted in any significant way.

What on earth distinguishes a "wholesale Internet service" from a "retail Internet service" anyway?

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