The Perils of Thinking of Broadband as a Public Utility

by on November 19, 2008 · 14 comments

Richard Bennett and Matt Sherman explain why it’s a bad idea. (And here are a few of my old rants on the issue.)

Bennett:

If we’ve learned anything at all about from the history of Internet-as-utility, it’s that this strained analogy only applies in cases where there is no existing infrastructure, and probably ends best when a publicly-financed project is sold (or at least leased) to a private company for upgrades and management. We should be suspicious of projects aimed at providing Wi-Fi mesh because they’re slow as molasses on a winter’s day.

I don’t see any examples of long-term success in the publicly-owned and operated networking space. And I also don’t see any examples of publicly-owned and operated Internet service providers doing any of the heavy lifting in the maintenance of the Internet protocols, a never-ending process that’s vital to the continuing growth of the Internet.

Sherman:

Pursuing a public utility model while also desiring competition are fundamentally contradictory goals. Utilities are designed not to compete. Do you, or does anyone you know, have a choice of providers for water, sewage or electricity?

My second question would be: is there anyone in the technology world who sees public utilities as a model for innovation? A 1.5 megabit connection (T1) was an unimaginable luxury when I started in tech in the mid-90′s. It was for well-funded companies only. Today, it is a low-end consumer connection and costs around 80% less. Has your sewage service followed a similar trajectory?

A public utility is designed to be “good enough” and little more. There is no need, and little room, for differentiation or progress. Your electricity service is essentially unchanged from 20 years ago, and will look the same 10 years from now. Broadband, on the other hand, requires constant innovation if we are to move forward — and it has been delivering it, even if we desire more.

  • dimitris

    A 1.5 megabit connection (T1) was an unimaginable luxury when I started in tech in the mid-90’s. It was for well-funded companies only. Today, it is a low-end consumer connection and costs around 80% less. Has your sewage service followed a similar trajectory?

    Based on the fact that my sewage provider isn't considering putting me on a liquid-only diet, or limit how many/often guests I can have over I'd have to say no.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    The sewer system has severe restrictions on the kinds of devices you can attach and the applications they can run. As soon as somebody tries to connect a high-volume, bi-directional toilet, the shit will hit the fan. So to speak.

  • MikeRT

    If you lease a T1, you're not in the same class of customer that they're thinking about doing that to. You're now one of their golden hair kids who they love.

  • Brett Glass

    I don't want my sewage to follow a trajectory, thank you very much. ;-) But seriously: the model of a utility is EXACTLY THE WRONG ONE for the Internet. When the Internet was first created, the entire idea was to connect distinct networks that were independently owned, operated, and administered. (That's why the domain name system is the way it is: the original top level domains — com, net, and org — were established to reflect the type of establishment that owned a network.) The Bell System was following a utility model, and one of the goals of the researchers who created the Internet was to get away from that model and allow separate management and administration.

    Regulate the Internet in such a way that you'd force it to be a utility, and you will destroy its essence. Worse still, you will ensure that it is only viable as a monopoly or at best a duopoly. You'll see mediocre service, the elimination of consumer choice, and (very quickly) regulatory capture.

  • Brett Glass

    I don't want my sewage to follow a trajectory, thank you very much. ;-) But seriously: the model of a utility is EXACTLY THE WRONG ONE for the Internet. When the Internet was first created, the entire idea was to connect distinct networks that were independently owned, operated, and administered. (That's why the domain name system is the way it is: the original top level domains — com, net, and org — were established to reflect the type of establishment that owned a network.) The Bell System was following a utility model, and one of the goals of the researchers who created the Internet was to get away from that model and allow separate management and administration.

    Regulate the Internet in such a way that you'd force it to be a utility, and you will destroy its essence. Worse still, you will ensure that it is only viable as a monopoly or at best a duopoly. You'll see mediocre service, the elimination of consumer choice, and (very quickly) regulatory capture.

  • Brett Glass

    I don't want my sewage to follow a trajectory, thank you very much. ;-) But seriously: the model of a utility is EXACTLY THE WRONG ONE for the Internet. When the Internet was first created, the entire idea was to connect distinct networks that were independently owned, operated, and administered. (That's why the domain name system is the way it is: the original top level domains — com, net, and org — were established to reflect the type of establishment that owned a network.) The Bell System was following a utility model, and one of the goals of the researchers who created the Internet was to get away from that model and allow separate management and administration.

    Regulate the Internet in such a way that you'd force it to be a utility, and you will destroy its essence. Worse still, you will ensure that it is only viable as a monopoly or at best a duopoly. You'll see mediocre service, the elimination of consumer choice, and (very quickly) regulatory capture.

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