Saturday, September 29, 2007

Politics and Technology: Seldom a good match

People who were appalled to hear the Internet described as a system of tubes by the man in congress charged with overseeing said tubes may take some comfort in the fact that said man, Republican Senator Ted Stevens, is currently under investigation for corruption. But Democrats cannot claim to be great technologists either.

Consider the mess that politics is making of technology in the Democratic state of New York. Many Americans don't realize that New York state, when considered in terms of land use, is largely a rural state. In other words, most of the state is countryside, dotted with farms and populated at low densities. Many of these rural communities struggle to provide enough jobs at sufficient salary levels to prevent young people from moving away. There is considerable economic blight.

Technologists may look at this situation and see a chance for technology to come to the rescue.
Let's install broadband Internet access so higher paying tech jobs can be located in rural communities and the agricultural sector can reap the productivity benefits that come from Web 2.0 services. Great idea. Proven to work in numerous places around the world. Except that the free market does not like providing capital intensive technology to rural areas. The only reason that rural communities in America have phone services is a Federal program of subsidy to enable "Universal Service" (financed by a small charge on your monthly phone bill). But there is strong resistant among broadband providers (now mainly phone companies) to expanding that program by defining broadband as essential. See Universal Service.

But surely liberal New York state could do something about this, offer subsidies, lobby for access to FUS funds. But no. The state politicians are opposed to expanding FUS to cover broadband because a. New York might be a net loser of FUS funds and b. FUS broadband would be federal, available in all states, not just New York and "thus deprive New York of any advantages in might gain from having a state scheme to increase rural broadband access."

Now, are you ready for a big cynical dose of irony? There is no state scheme to increase rural broadband access. Why? Could it be because state officials and politicos have been feeding at the trough of the big telcos, companies that can't be bothered to serve those very communities through which they route their trunk lines to connect big cities, where there are large pools of customers?

One ironic twist in the teclo lobbying fandango is that they have been selling politicians [who think the Internet is a series of pipes, remember] on satellite Internet service as a way to fill the gap for rural areas. How altruistic is that? Let rural users eat broadband via satellite, hence there is no need for use to wire them. Except satellite is NOT competitive with wired broadband. So it is not altruistic at all. Telcos pushing satellite in rural areas is not a conflict of interest because satellite is a dead-end for serious broadband.

Why? Two words. Latency and cap. Satellite Internet users have a bandwidth cap. Even if you pay Hughes Net $199 per month they won't give you more than 450 megabytes of bandwidth per day. If you watch streaming video over broadband you can easily consume 60 megabytes an hour. Imagine a family of four. They each could watch a few hours of streaming video in a day. Boom, there goes your limit. And the consequences are dire if you exceed that limit. You are throttled back to a plain old dial-up pace of connectivity for the next 20 to 24 hours. And don't think this is just about unfairness to YouTube addicts. These days we get clients asking use to download hundreds of megabytes of code and documentation per day.

Then there is the latency. It renders VPN use almost impossible. And VPN is the single most important technology for enabling telecommuting from rural areas!

And we haven't even talked about what happens when you get bad weather (you get bad connections, dropped packets, total loss of connectivity, snail pace response times). Then there So, satellite is amazing technology, no doubt about that, but is not at all comparable to wired broadband.

So, what are rural users to do? I expect that some of them will organize and lobby. Others will simply build their own alternatives and, hopefully, deprive the telcos of revenue. If you light up the valley with WiFi, for example, you could steal a bunch of revenue from cell and land line providers. Maybe then those land line owners will be more appreciative of the folk of who allow them to run their fibre through their valley without bothering to give the locals a taste.

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