Thursday, May 04, 2006

Hurray! and Boo! to the FCC

"Digital divide" was a phrase coined by Larry Irving, United States Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, in the mid 90s. It described the gulf in computer and Internet access between rich Americans and poor Americans, or richer areas of the country compared to poorer areas of the country. The digital divide is set to get wider, if the phone companies have anything to do with it.

Here's an article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from last December:

To summarize, the big telecommunications companies are rolling out fibre optic networks for delivering high definition television and high speed Internet connectivity (at greater speeds than we see today). There is a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) law in the U.S. that requires telecoms to roll out new technology in a non-discriminatory manner. In other words, they have to roll it out to poor neighbourhoods as well as rich neighbourhoods, to urban areas as well as rural areas. There is some leeway, of course. The law doesn't require that if you test market in San Antonio, Texas you also test market on a mountain in Montana. It does mean that the telecoms can't target the rich areas of the country and leave the poor areas without the better service for years or... forever.

The reason for the law is simple: give everyone fair access. It makes sense to wire New York for new technology. It makes less sense to wire Farmerville, Louisiana (an actual place!). It's not as cost effective. The FCC has said, "Tough!" and forced telecoms to give rural and poor neighbourhoods the same access as the rich neighbourhoods. The cable companies have followed this law, to the tune of a $100 billion investment over the years.

Now the telephone companies want to be exempted from this law with regard to these new high speed networks, such as AT&T's Lightspeed. (This is new stuff, this isn't DSL or digital cable.)

Hopefully the telecoms will lose this fight. Living in a poorer area of the country, I know what would happen if they got their way. While in Toronto I could get dial-up speeds approaching the limits of my 56K modem, in Monroe I could never get beyond about 24K. Bell South had no interest in upgrading their voice lines, but they would happily sell you DSL (and this FCC law is probably the only reason why DSL was available so readily in Monroe). If they get their way, they will be able to bypass areas with less population density while they make a mint off the big guys. They could, in theory, avoid rolling out high tech networks for... well, probably forever, or at least until it was cheap enough that they thought it was worth the trouble.

With us, Bell South shot themselves in the foot. They offered highspeed Internet via DSL, but only gave you a really good price break if you took their full package of telephone options and one of their long distance plans. We ran the math and it saved us money to drop our home phone and go with broadband cable access. Now we use our cell phones and don't have a "land line".

So, hurray for the FCC (assuming the law stands). They are the only thing standing in the way of telecom discriminatory practices.

And, boo for the FCC! They just announced that they will start requiring Voice over IP (VoIP) phone companies, broadband providers, large enterprise networks and universities to add mandatory wiretap access to their networks. The cost, if the FCC has its way, will be born entirely by the companies.

The FCC says it is required for their efforts against terrorism (this in spite of the fact that they haven't shown that wiretapping for terrorism reasons has worked with regard to regular telephone lines.)

Whatever your views on mandatory wiretapping, the laws are in place and these networks do need to put wiretapping abilities in place. That's not what's at issue. The issue is the cost. Universities, alone, say that doing this will cost about $7 billion.

The cost will, of course, fall back on the consumer. In the case of VoIP, it could seriously hamper an alternative to the telecoms. At the very least, each of us with broadband access to the Internet will see our bills go up.

If this is part of the "war on terror", why isn't the government paying for it? They could, couldn't they? Oh, that's right... they are too busy spending $100+ billion a year on a war in a country that turned out not to have links to Al-Qaeda, and too busy giving tax cuts to the wealthy.

For more information on this, see:

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