From September 2005 to June 2006 a team of thirteen scholars at the The University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication explored how new and maturing networking technologies are transforming the way in which we interact with content, media sources, other individuals and groups, and the world that surrounds us.

This site documents the process and the results.

The Last Mile and the Threat to the Net

In Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes, at Doc Searl comments on the threats the Internet faces from broadband carriers. In this lengthy piece, Searl suggests that the combination of mergers among broadband carriers and the continued hatred of the Internet by the same entities poses tremendous danger to the future of networked publics. Searl's position is something that I've mentioned before in my response to Chris Anderson's talk on the Long Tail. For in the rapidly elongating Long Tail of microcontent and—as Mimi Ito underscored for us—the even more quickly proliferating cultural sphere of amateur cultural production, we are perversely reversing the undoing of big media that marked the last forty years. If my concern in that post was with what might happen to, say, Indy labels if artists can just go directly to iTunes, or what power entities like Google or even Flickr begin to have over us, Doc Searl reminds us that the much-vaunted free access that we have to the Internet is an illusion, not reality. In an earlier article for Cabinet Magazine, I explored the highly-centralized structure of the Internet itself and, in particular, the peering arrangements and physical structures created by the Tier 1 carriers. This article turns our attention to the last mile.

Broadband carriers have been going through a recent fit of mergers enough to make old John D. Rockefeller proud. Moreover, a recent comment by SBC CEO Edward Whitacre, on the acquisition of AT&T made many of us think that SBC's adoption of the AT&T name wasn't just an accident:

How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG ), MSN, Vonage, and others?

How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO ) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!

Searl concludes that once the mergers settle out

The new carrier-based Net will work in the same asymmetrical few-to-many, top-down pyramidal way made familiar by TV, radio, newspapers, books, magazines and other Industrial Age media now being sucked into Information Age pipes. Movement still will go from producers to consumers, just like it always did. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Literally.

But do we have to listen to whatever it is that AT&T, the reincarnation, wants us to? Isn't the Internet fundamentally two way? Not in the carriers' view, Searl points out. Wonder why broadband upload speeds are so much slower than download speeds? It's no accident, Searl says.

We need to stress how the pipe-centric view of the world is responsible for the crippled and asymmetrical "consumer" service the carriers call "broadband". By restricting upstream use of the Net and biasing service to downstream "content delivery", the carriers have effectively outlawed personal and small business enterprise on the Net. This is one area where the carriers have been persistently clueless and hostile to the Net since the beginning, and we need to call them on it. (Required reading: John Perry Barlow's Death From Above, written in March 1995.)

Searl's piece is a call to action and he concludes by declaring that we need to find ways to bypass the last mile ISPs pipes and to take the fight to Congress.

The Searl piece has already generated a bit of discussion. At Smartmobs, Samuel Rose suggests that all that dark fiber out there may allow a mesh network to bypass the ISP's pipes, but how that gets us past the problem of the last mile is unclear. At the if:book blog, Ben Vershbow suggests that we may be in for a replay of radio—which could have been two-way—but became one way. Radio, or Muzak? Radio has its possibilities for mild dissent. Back in my grad school days, horrified by Ithaca, New York's lousy college radio (it wasn't college, more like proto-Britney Spears) and disgusted by NPR's rah-rah coverage of the first Gulf War, I bought myself a shortwave radio and listened to John Peel on the BBC and dance music on Radio Sierra Leone while monitoring world newscasts for some hint of what was really going on. The model that the carriers are creating is much more total, a complete experience, all packaged for you to whatever micro-niche they identify you as belonging to, along the lines of Muzak. Watch for this under the guise of opt-out parental monitoring. As it is, my ISP, which I chose as an alternative to SBC and which is generally quite progressive, blocks port 25 and won't let me opt-out, effectively cutting me off from an email address that I've used forever. What's next, will I get this message when I go to Flickr?

Submitted by kvarnelis on November 29, 2005 - 11:37pm