America at the Internet Crossroads
I’ll start with the more recent book (copyright 2006, published by Classic Day Publishing). Michael is a long-time builder of digital networks, both commercial and non-commercial. His book takes up the popular idea of municipal digital networks, which are filling the gap left by business and old-fashioned policies both inside and outside the United States. Among his most interesting and useful insights are:
- A vision of how high-bandwidth networks can benefit the public. This is Chapter 14 in the book, and I wish it was Chapter 1. We’ve all heard of plans for environments rich with sensors and data displays (MIT’s Project Oxygen, for instance) but rarely have I seen an author lay out such a persuasive and desirable scenario while avoiding science-fiction excess.
- A tallying of the money that pervasive networking could save through such innovations as monitoring chronically ill patients in their homes, and cutting back on the time people spend commuting.
- How we can get there: a stab at a strategy (which each region will have to flesh out according to its unique needs and resource) for municipalities to start by supporting their own operations, and then branch out to more and more aspects of a digital public life.
This new book seems old in parts. Michael relies heavily on the metaphor of the Internet as a highway, but he redeems the metaphor and makes it work for him, by researching how the U.S. highway system actually developed and drawing some conclusions relevant to the twin roles of governments and private enterprises in providing other publicgoods.
Once one realizes that a high-bandwidth (really high-bandwidth) municipal network can be like everybody on a region sharing a LAN, it’s understandable how such a network can be more efficient and feature-rich than the present system where everybody contracts individually with an Internet provider whose goal is simply to extract as much profit as possible. Furthermore, treating the building of the network as a form of urban planning means more bang for the buck.
One can argue with Michael’s metaphor (there are limits to every metaphor) or use different parts of the history to dispute his conclusions, but this book contributes a lot of ideas to broadband policy. Its forthright justification of local public investment needs to be discussed.
One of the problems of adoption addressed in the book is how to make the public demand multi-megabit connections. How can you get people excited about what they’re missing, about what they’ve never experienced? A number of services and trial runs are suggested.
Parenthetically, I’d like to bring up the frequent claim that the Internet originally reached the general public in the 1980s and early 1990s through colleges. Millions of young people got a chance to use it in college, and brought their habits and expectations back home and to their workplaces. The same thing should be happening now with gigabit-size pipes. But the initiatives in this direction in universities have been too insular; they haven’t provided access to general college populations, or applications (outside of semi-illicit file-sharing) that would interest them.
The Great Telecom Meltdown
This book is slightly older (copyright 2005, published by Artech House) but that’s all right because it digs back into ancient history: the development of the Internet and the various aspects of the dot-com boom. That this history is nevertheless relevant today should be evident. We are not likely to repeat history, but we are living with the actors that this history left standing, so we need to know whom we’re dealing with.
Fred is a technologist and a policy expert (as well as a friend of mine) who is equally comfortable discussing telecom and the Internet, a field long characterized by an uneasy tension between Bell-heads and Net-heads. His insights are all the more valuable nowadays, when the two worlds have become inseparable.
The Great Telecom Meltdown has two stories, both drawing on complex background in technology, business, and policy. The first concerns the dot-com bust to which the title of the book refers.
When when boils down the details, the theme is one we’ve heard before: that irrational exuberance took over the industries involved, that no one knew where wealth would come from and what made wealth sustainable, and that overinvestment kept pumping up companies until their greed (sometimes expressed in actual graft) surpassed anything the public and investors could put up with. Fred traces every aspect of this story, from Worldcom’s widely circulated (but ridiculous) predictions of telecom growth to the growth of dot-coms, the jumping on board of equipment manufacturers, and the gullibility of investors ranging from venture capitalists to ordinary folks trying to tuck away a nest egg.
There’s another story in this book, a more important one for looking toward the future. And while this story is known to people who have promoted competition and growth in the Internet industry, it’s still not familiar to the general public. I’m referring to the rules set up by Congress, the FCC, and eventually the courts to regulate competition–and how these rules finally squelched it.
Fred believes that new, independent phone companies were making good headway and had a chance to give us a very different Internet than what we have today–one that is faster, cheaper, and rich with services. The failure of this vision is the failure of those in government to give these dynamic new companies a chance.
So The Great Telecom Meltdown helps people new to telecom and Internet policy understand the fundamental story that they need to know in entering the debate. Anyone who has been part of one of these industries during the past couple decades will also find the book intriguing, because it explains the underpinnings of the trends that participants may have witnessed at a different level as programmers or system designers.