Policy Beyond the Potholes

By Bob Frankston
Bob Frankston

I cringe whenever I hear the arguments that we can't have community owned infrastructure for connectivity because local governments can't fix potholes. I wouldn't mind it so much if that argument wasn't used to shut off further discussion.

We should be asking why we are denied the "dumb-pipes" that provide vital infrastructure and why we allow phone (and TV) companies to horde vital infrastructure. Instead we accept the "pothole" argument as a reason we can't be trusted to communicate on our own.

This story in the New York Times this week (Long a Driver's Curse, Chicago Parking Gets Worse - By SUSAN SAULNY - So many privately run parking meters were out of order in Chicago that the city declared a moratorium on writing tickets.) should help put that nonsense to rest along with other simplistic notions that "private enterprise" is always better than "government". These are terms and sound bites that have no deep meaning but spare us the need to think.

How is this any different from expecting phone or cable companies to be able to run an infrastructure that threatens their existence? It's far more extreme than the failed idea of having CLECs (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier) being dependent upon the threatened incumbents for transport.

I compare these efforts to accepting a just-so surface story. You don't have to dig very deeply to see the structural problems.

Often it seems the issues are couched in terms of good guys and bad guys or, more to the point morality as noted in another NYT piece from this weekend (A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality - By LESLIE WAYNE - A new oath to be taken by graduates of Harvard Business School next week says, in effect, that greed is not good).

Granted there have been well-known extreme cases of sociopathic behavior as in the case of Enron. But it is ill-advised to substitute simplistic notions of ethics for understanding structural issues. If we align self-interests then greed, or the desire to benefit oneself, can work in our favor. It's about how the interests are aligned — altruists don't necessarily have a stake in improving society.

Focusing on technology has provided me with a laboratory for understanding the structural issues. The question is how to get people to look beyond these simplistic mantras and sound bites. Sound bites are a fine way to open a conversation, just like an elevator pitch in business.

The real tragedy comes when we lock these sound bites into simplistic rules within a regulatory matrix and legal framework.

At D7 (The Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital conference) I listened to Randall Stephenson of AT&T explain why it was so hard to supply bandwidth as he described the myriad ways in which they slice and dice the capacity though he failed to mention that the reason why cellular backhaul is so difficult is that they are buying from themselves. I tried to ask why all this complexity when bits are bits and whether this was about preventing a price collapse due to abundance — but it didn't fit into the surface story.

I saw this again as the speakers describe the broadcast industry without any hint whatsoever that they are wasting a valuable infrastructure by locking it into the accidental properties of legacy TV and telephony markets. Where is the discussion about what would be possible if we liberated it? Before IBM had to separate hardware from software computers were only useful for designated applications — society discovered new value in the hardware once it was liberated from IBM's value chain.

We need to stop saying thing like "the governments can't fix potholes so..." and stop pretending that "private enterprise" is magic. Governments are us and they have certain structural characteristic; corporations are another kind of structure. Those making policy and practicing legal legerdemain have a responsibility understand what goes on beneath the surface.

By Bob Frankston, Independent Internet Professional. Bob has been online and using/building computer networks since 1966. He is the co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it, and is a fellow of the IEEE, ACM and the Computer History Museum.

Related topics: Access Providers, Broadband, Policy & Regulation, Telecom

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