Open Source & Making a New World

I’ve made a small habit out providing something thought-provoking for folks Sunday reflections.

The object-to-puzzle-over today is Doc Searls’ latest bit on “Making a New World.” It’s a ramble, and if you’re not familiar with the conversation its pretty hard to follow. It certainly doesn’t make much in the way of concessions to eye candy–it’s all text and links.

There are nifty parts; nuggets in them thar hills. For example:

  1. Nobody owns,
  2. Everybody can use, and
  3. Anybody can improve.

These are the principles behind the new network infrastructure. 1 & 2 are the principles behind all infrastructure. But #3 is something new under the sun; and it bears thinking about.

Another Example:

The case of Internet radio is instructive. The DMCA defined broadcasting on the Net as “performance”, and digital copies as “perfect”, regardless of their fidelity. It required “webcasters” to negotiate royalties with the recording industry, through a Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel administered by the U.S. Copyright Office. Led by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the CARP instituted royalty requirements so labyrinthine, difficult and costly to webcasters that it effectively prevented the industry it purported to regulate. Had it been imposed on over-the-air broadcasting at the dawn of that industry, it would have strangled that baby in the cradle too.

One unintended consequence is podcasting. …

Ok. Wow. Hadn’t thought that through but he’s probably right. Or at least podcasting has had a special day in the sun because of the absence of the equivalent of standard radio on the internet medium.

The nuggets are there. As a reader, you’ll have to mine them. Working that vein is more effort than most writting; that I’ll cheerfully admit.

But Searls is one of the grand old men of the internet and he’s well worth being patient with. –He’s currently the senior editor of the Linux Journal, was an author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, and is a major figure in the open source movement. If that doesn’t mean much to you, don’t worry–let’s just say he’s a “seminal thinker” whose influenced a lot of influential people and let it go at that.

He’s pulling together a buncha strands in a not very explicit way. But at least one thing that is bubbling up in the stew is that there’s a new world making out there and we’re having a hard time making sense of that fact. He wants to help us out a bit in understanding what’s going on but, since he mostly lives in that other world, he has a hard time communicating.

For his money Linux, open source, new business models…and more…are really symptoms and harbingers of that change. They share a particular way of understanding the world that might be called a “network logic” that recognizes how the building blocks of new has be open and in the public domain in order to become ubiquitous enough to really become a new infrastructure. Once that infrastructure is in place we can make value on top of it, because of it. But it won’t work to profit off it directly by closing it up and making it proprietary.

The essay repays some slow reading and patient thought. When your grandkids want to know if it’s really true that at one time people had to personally own(!) things like operating systems, digital storage, and applications in order to use them you’ll want to be able to talk to them about how that once seemed sane, sensible, and indeed the only way to do things. This essay is a good start on understanding how and why that familiar, commonsensical model is falling apart and why much that is proprietary today has begun to shift solidly toward an open, free, infrastructure model.

Heads Up—Fiber Bond Appeal

The Advertiser issues a heads up on the Naquin-Eastin fiber appeal. Here’s the gist of the story:

The only pending legal action that could halt the proposed Lafayette Utilities System fiber-to-the-home project will be heard Thursday.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeal is expected to hear an appeal filed by Lafayette residents Elizabeth Naquin and Matthew Eastin at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at 1000 Main St. in Lake Charles.

Eyes on the prize folks. This part of the delaying game is near an end.

Conditions for AT&T/BS merger?

AT&T is set on acquiring BellSouth. Whitacre, AT&T’s CEO, wants to rebuild the old AT&T monolith? And the FCC doesn’t appear to have the will to block it? Well at least require the public service that goes with granting a class of monopoly.

That’s the peevish suggestion of Dave Burstein of DSL prime.

Burnstein’s point is that the public ought to get something out of allowing this enormous reconcentration of economic power. He thinks it should be DSL-like bandwidth at affordable, DSL-like prices. Burnstein points out that the Goliath could, at reasonable cost relative to its size, provide 90 percent of it’s footprint with DSL or WiMax-at-DSL speeds and a satellite service to the rest. As he points out, this would only be making Whitacre make good on an old promise:

In 1999, Ed Whitacre promised 80 percent coverage with Project Pronto in 2002, and “all our customers” in the next few years after that, using whatever technology proved most effective. Instead, SBC stopped below 76 percent and refused to even reveal the number. If Kevin Martin has the backbone, 100 percent availability will be part of the coming AT&T/BellSouth merger. AT&T would huff and puff, but Martin faced them down before on UNE-P.

Serving us all with at least moderate bandwidth is not all so unlikely as it might appear at first blush, though Burnstein doesn’t explain why: Doing so would be “merely” requiring universal coverage of a set of services that AT&T and BellSouth are already starting to deploy for their second and third tier markets–the ones, the size Lafayette and below, that won’t get fiber. They’d be profitable businesses–just not as profitable as other ways the new giant might spend its money. (Yes, yes, I know–BellSouth won’t be able to to compete in this market with merely DSL speeds. LUS changes the competitive situation in Lafayete. Both incumbents will have to expend more effort-and more bandwidth–if they intend to stay in this market.)

Beyond those questions, however, Bernstein claims there is a real issue anti-trust issue before the FCC and that affordable, universal, bandwidth in the 20 meg range is the remedy. He believes that when AT&T launches its “Uverse” video over IP service it will be deliberately preventing competitors from entering the market by refusing to sell customers enough bandwidth to allow them to purchase competing with video products. The idea is that the FCC can avoid a crisis

…this fall, when AT&T turns on their HD service and creates a prima facie antitrust violation. AT&T is blocking customers from all but six Mbps of the 20 to 25 Mbps Lightspeed connections. They refuse to sell higher speeds at reasonable or even unreasonable prices.

So his take on the issue of net neutrality focuses less on the threat of tiering and packet prioritization and more on the raw economic power that control of the last mile’s bandwidth gives the incumbents in the emerging video over Internet Protocol market.

Not merely did Ed Whitacre and Randall Stephenson say they want a tollbooth, they are already telling reporters they will limit speeds with the result that live HD video can’t challenge Lightspeed.

It’s not just that AT&T/BS wants to put a toll road on the faster, more useable lanes of the internet highway. More crucially they also want to be the only trucking company with a useable off-ramp to your home.

Put that way, the antitrust charge makes a good bit of sense. And one remedy–the least intrusive remedy–would be to mandate that they sell you enough bandwidth to allow you to purchase competing products from some one else.

“US Drops to 20th in Broadband Penetration”

The US has dropped to 20th, down from 17th, in percentage of households served by broadband connections and is poised to drop off the chart. As abysmal as that ranking is, it actually understates the problem since “broadband” is loosely defined as anything faster than a 56k modem. US systems are relatively slow compared to our competitors on the world stage. South Korean and Japanese systems, for example, deliver significantly faster speed for fraction of our cost.

It’s getting progressively harder to paint our cable and phone incumbents as anything other than incompetent. They’ve squandered a huge lead in infrastructure in the worlds wealthiest country.

(From Website Optimization via a link from Searls blog)

WBS: The Doc Searls Weblog

What’s Being Said Dept.

It’s nice to be noticed–and extremely gratifying to be noticed by someone who “gets” what you’re trying to do. Doc Searls is one of the “silverbacks” of the web: a veteran who regularly gets quoted with respect. So I was gratified to run across the following citation. Searls is discussing his take on net neutrality and opining that the broad range of more traditional economic and political power wielded by the incumbents are of greater concern than the topical net neutrality debate. (I’d tend to agree, with the caveat that the net neutrality debate is fueled by concern over one, if only one, form of economic power.) The quote:

The far greater danger is the carriers lobbying and litigating to death both backbone carriers and local competitors. The former are businesses that merely transport bits (the ultimate commodity business, and by far the most “neutral” out there) The latter include local and regional wifi and fiber deployment efforts. Some are initiated by local governments. Some are not. All are citizen workarounds of unhelpful cable and telco duopolies. The carriers literally want these efforts to be made illegal. To them only phone and cable companies should be allowed to carry the Net.

Or so it seems to me, after reading up on what’s happening behind the scenes, mostly at the state level. It’s not pretty. For a peek, check this and other pieces at the Lafayette pro fiber blog. These are not liberal wackos. They’re local citizens fighting to get what they want, with or without help from the local telco/cableco duopoly.

I think this is exactly right and the approach is what has motivated Lafayette Pro Fiber. Absent a national policy that really encourages broadband — replete with peering agreements that don’t favor the giants and support for local communities to get into broadband on their own–the real fight is in the last mile where monopoly or duopoly control by the incumbents gives them the power they need to push stuff like packet prioritization as a business strategy. As things stand that last mile fight is necessarily local. Wresting that control away from the carriers gives local communities a fighting chance and having uncontrolled centers like Lafayette will serve to keep the incumbents honest, much as the Tenessse Valley Authority’s publicly produced electricity at good rates kept the energy companies honest in our grandparents time when the last big network was being built.

On the other hand…

….Of course, things balance out. For every bright spot like Searls’s comment there’s got to be a dark cloud to balance things out. The infamous Stephen Titch disapprovingly links to Lafayette Pro Fiber. (You recall him–he’s the fella who scammed the Advertiser, twice, no thrice, with his bought and paid “advertorials” and his “research” and issued under the color of the Heartless Institute during the fiber fight.) Titch objects to the recent Advertiser editorial and posts in LPF that point out that the will of the people is being stymied by incumbents afraid of a little competition. The post is a little lesson in how such folks reason: After some trite nonsense about legal rights (yes–and so?) he slides into a bit of (deliberate?) confusion that blurs the the difference between law, his ideology, and economics. The most transparent part of it is his attempt to play games with the definition of monopoly. Titch tries mightily to transform a straightforward economic definition into one that is somehow dependent on whether stockholders and potential stockholders approve of current management. Shareholder happiness has nothing to do with monopoly status as the lack of regard for railroads–as obvious a monopoly as we are likely to see–demonstrates. Monopolies, free of market discipline, are often abysmally run and shareholder dissatisfaction has been common.

But aside from the dubious reasoning it’s more than a little repulsive to read a piece which celebrates and justifies the frustration of an overwhelming community vote and righteously announces that we’d be better off if we’d just stop with the six million in interest rates increases the that the incumbents have forced on us recently. Stunningly arrogant. If you ever wondered if these guys might have your interest at heart stuff like this should dissuade you. Welcome to the new corporate conservatism. It doesn’t much resemble your daddy’s conservativism.

Chicken or Egg? Sunday Thought Piece

A light, but thought-provoking, piece came across my virtual desk this week. The story, entitled Broadband Users Are Eager for New Applications,” doesn’t really demonstrate any such thing but the subhead is more interesting and more accurately reflective of the article:

“Which comes first, high-bandwidth pipes or high-bandwidth apps? Or is each side waiting for the other to move?”

It’s a classic: “Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?” Such conundrums usually reveal nothing more than a bad question. But this time there really might be an answer and the answer is: high-bandwidth pipes. Nobody will develop anything to be used over an infrastructure that’s not yet there. We can barely imagine what we could do with a gig to the home, an infinitely malleable digital framework, and easy interactions between media modalities. Hell, it’s even hard to talk about without using obscure jargon.

But I am sure of one thing: that all that big capacity will be filled–that’s what always happens.

The article goes on to note that a critical mass of “fiber-connected communities” with huge pipes is coming together and a graphic from the story make shows the typical take-off curve has taken shape.

Today about 1,000 geographically dispersed “fiber-connected communities” exist in the United States. Connecting these communities with each other, either through the public Internet or perhaps through a secondary, higher-capacity network, would create a large mass of potential customers with very-high-bandwidth capacity. This group might well be the critical mass needed to unleash a flood of new applications designed for high-speed networks.

Interesting? Lafayette has the resources to be at the front of that flood. It will be one of the largest fiber networks, probably the largest, in the United States. It has a university, some good tech credentials and possible seed beds like AOC. It could be a very interesting ride.

Update on Naquin-Eastin Drop Dead Date

Word is that oral arguments in the Naquin-Eastin case (the appeal that is being used to block the bond issue) have been set for August 3. The panel chosen to hear the ruling will be Judges Sullivan, Ezell, and Saunders.

Presuming they get done that day we’ll se a ruling on August 10th. That’s four days earlier than we’d been anticipating…the city must be eager.

A lot of us are eager to get on with it.

“LUS bond issue back in court”

In the latest of a series of well-researched articles on fiber to the home issues Kevin Blanchard lays out the argument made by the Eastin-Naquin lawyers in the bond issue case before Louisiana’s third circuit court of appeal.

But he neglects to lay out the city’s winning case that the opponents of Lafayette’s fiber to the home project are attempting to overcome–this is, after all, an appeal.

Among other points, Blanchard repeats the claim made by the Plaquimines lawyers that LUS can’t take out loans from local government. But he fails to note that the law explicitly allows loans and lays out the conditions under which they must be made–including a provision, for instance, that such in-house loans should be made at “market rate.” Even the legislature clearly realized that a project of that loans would occasionally be necessary and provided for them. The idea that internal loans are somehow prohibited it is a stretch that (doesn’t really) justify another level of delay. BellSouth and Cox know quite well the intent of the law.

Of course, if the law were better drafted this sort of nonsense wouldn’t be possible. Chalk up yet another reason to repeal the Local Government (un)Fair Competition Act.

Advertiser editorializes on Eastin and Naquin

Today’s Advertiser editorial is dedicated to the Naquin-Eastin question. With the recent one-year anniversary of the fiber to the home vote and with the bond issue appeal due to be finally decided by the middle of August feelings are running high in the city about the delaying lawsuit.

The Advertiser editorial staff raises good questions–they ask about the unusual secrecy of the pair, the long parade of lawsuits, their apparent willingness to do the work of the incumbents, the possibility that Naquin and Eastin are pursuing this for personal profit.

Though many points will be familiar to regular readers here, the essay is well worth reading. Some teaser quotes:

There is one question that we would like for Naquin and Easton to honestly honor. It is an important one.

Does the ongoing legal opposition to the LUS program reflect solely your own views?

LUS Director Terry Huval already has begun asking a question that is becoming common in the community: “Nobody knows anything about these folks. Who’s putting these people up to this?…”

Until there is open dialogue, the tendency of the public will be to suspect that Naquin and Eastin are acting for others, possibly for personal gain.

And finally:

Besides delaying a project approved by the people and the courts, the ongoing litigation has cost the taxpayers of Lafayette a substantial amount of money. The public deserves to know why.


Veto Override fails

Reperesentative Montgomery has abandoned his attempt to bring the legislature back into session to override Blanco’s recent vetoes. This morning’s Advertiser story on this issue makes it clear that the Montgomery’s purpose was to resuscitate HB 699, BellSouth’s state-wide video franchise bill.

Earlier stories on the attempt to bring the legislature back into session have been vague as to why the attempt was being made. If you didn’t understand clearly that Montgomery sponsored BellSouth’s bill it was hard to understand why he was pursuing a veto session.

Montgomery quit because he no longer has the votes:

[Montgomery] had commitments from enough legislators in the House to hold a veto override session, but, if such a session was held, he was uncertain he could obtain the necessary two-thirds vote to override the veto.

That’s telling–apparently once those legislators got back home and talked to local mayors and police jurors they got an earful. Support for HB 699 has understandably waned. If the mayor of the biggest towns in your district start bad-mouthing the job you’re doing up in Baton Rouge, you’re in trouble.

Likely that is not all that is going on. Blanco vetoed a lot of pork projects across the state and every legislator who had their particular ox gored would have loved another bite of the apple. But the legislators know the score even if earlier reporters on the potential veto session did not. They’d already watched Montgomery push BellSouth’s bill through during the regular session and knew that he thought a veto session should benefit HB 699. But they wanted their own pork bills too. It’s not hard to imagine that they said so plainly and demanded a clear price for their votes: passage of their vetoed bills. It’s not that this sort of thing doesn’t take place all the time. But this time, with only BellSouth’s bill driving the dealing it would have been crystal clear that votes were being traded. With local government finally rallied to the cause you can bet that a lot of politically savvy local people would be watching the sausage being made. Media coverage of the veto session, unlike the regular session’s focus on hurricane recovery issues, would be focused on what is, in the end, a bill to strip local governments of control of the public’s rights of way in in order to profit BellSouth. Faced with the prospect of a messy session and visibly fading support Montgomery, wisely, bailed.

Montgomery tries to put a good face on it all:

[Blanco] “has asked them to work together to see if they can come to some agreement,” Montgomery said. “We’re going to give that a shot up until the next session.”

But, bravado aside, the next session is a fiscal session–unless BellSouth has some very creative way to make this into a tax or expenditure bill it won’t be considered in the 2007 regular session. (Proponents of Lafayette’s fiber to the home project should not that this will give the city a year’s respite from the worst of the battles in the state legislature.)

HB 699 is dead.

Update: The Advocate also has a short story today on Montgomery’s attempt to bring the legislture back in session and his decision to abandon the effort. It contains some interesting tidbits about the process that brings a veto session into being and centers attention on Montgomery’s claim that Cox’s recent rate increase motivated his attempts. I’ll say it again, attempts to construct this bill as a battleground between Cox & the cable companies and BellSouth/AT&T are symptomatic of lazy reporting. BellSouth promoted the idea that a vote for HB 699 was a vote against high cable prices because it was a much easier sell than saying honestly that they only want to serve the most profitable segments of every town and new ritzy suburbs and local government was refusing to rent them land for that purpose. The media (and the legislature) bought BellSouth’s line because it fits in with everyone’s prejudices so nicely. But the real opponents are BellSouth and local governments with Cox a sometimes, tepid, ally of first one side and then the other depending on whether it is trying to secure its short-term or long-term interests at the moment. The history of this bill makes it clear: It’s local government vs. BellSouth.