Brett Glass (on the left) runs Lariat, a small wired and wireless Internet Service Provider (ISP) on the prairie in Laramie, Wyoming. Bob Frankston (right) programmed VisiCalc, the first personal computer spreadsheet and for several years worked on home networking issues for Microsoft, somehow without having to move from his beloved Newton, Massachusetts. Two nerds, a decade apart in age yet both vastly experienced, they have completely different views on Net Neutrality. Bob loves it. Brett hates it. Yet coming to understand each man’s position helps us better understand the whole Net Neutrality issue and what really matters.
Net Neutrality discussions usually come down to pitting home users against Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T. The ISP is presented as a bogeyman and a multi-billion-dollar bogeyman at that. It’s easy to oppose big, rich companies that maybe aren’t as attentive to customer service as they ought to be. But what if the ISP is Lariat and the customer service comes straight from the owner? That’s when things start to get interesting.
Brett is trying to get the most bang for his Internet backbone buck, so things like traffic shaping, web proxying, and restricting certain protocols like BitTorrent appeal to Brett because without those policies he’d have higher costs and lousier service for most users. So would Comcast and Verizon, by the way. ISPs large and small generally want to limit their users to certain bandwidth and download caps and don’t like enabling software and media piracy.
Bob Frankston, as an outspoken proponent of Net Neutrality, is really more about outright defeating the telephone and cable companies. He wants to put them out of business. Or, more properly, he wants to put them out of their present business. Bob thinks ISPs should simply be schleppers of bits, not paying the slightest attention to ports, protocols, or applications. In Bob’s ideal world we as individuals would control the copper wires and glass fibers that connect us to the Internet, with the ISP simply standing-by at the utility pole or neighborhood gateway to give or take bits that we’ll transmit at a rate of 100 million per second.
Bob’s concept of the Internet is actually fairly common in the darnedest places, like much of Eastern Europe. In Moscow, readers tell me, there are neighborhoods where you can get a coax connection to the net running at a blazing 100 megabits-per-second. But at the same time the meter is running and you may be paying individually for every one of those hundred million bits.
And this is where the two concepts — Brett’s and Bob’s – differ enough to matter. By calling for the very broadest definition of Net Neutrality it seems to Brett that Bob is trying to put him out of business. Brett identifies with his VoIP telco role. But what Bob proposes would force a change of business model on Brett and all the other ISPs right up to Comcast and Verizon: no more e-mail, McAffee, Net Nanny stuff — just the bits, please. Bob wants to take away everything that Brett sees as making his service charming.
The truth lies somewhere in-between. Business models ARE changing and they always have, though not quickly, in the telecommunications space. Back in 1983 when it divested its locl operating companies, AT&T (a different AT&T, remember, not the current company by that name) was choosing to deliberately abandon local phone service because long-distance made nearly all the profit. So AT&T became a long-distance telephone company, squandered lots of money on cable TV and cellphones, then saw itself implode when long distance became a commodity that’s effectively free for most customers. The AT&T business model changed (from full-service to strictly long-distance) then changed again (from long-distance to bankruptcy).
ISPs big and small are fighting to retain their present business models, which they view as essential to their survival and see threatened by Net Neutrality. They are making good money with the current model and so are loathe to change it. That’s it: they are resisting change, seeing it as bad. Until you get down to the level of Brett Glass trying to make some customer’s VoIP phone work well over a wireless link it’s fear of change that we’re seeing and not much else. Yet change is inevitable as markets grow and mature.
Brett may not be able to survive as a pure schlepper of bits. He sees his added value as bringing connectivity to places where it didn’t exist before. Bob respects that but concentrates on a bigger picture where the virtualization of networks is carried all the way to our property lines.
In the long run Bob Frankston is more correct, though in his zeal he seems to need the current class of big ISPs to die and be replaced. I’m not sure that is really needed, though it might be nice since that would at least end their reactionary lobbying.
Twenty years ago this month the Berlin Wall fell, changing European and Western culture as a result. Within the next 20 years we’ll see a similar revolution in digital networks as distinctions between wired and wireless, Internet and television, voice and data blur to insignificance. I just hope there’s still a role in there for Brett Glass, out on the prairie. I strongly suspect there will be.