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Internet as Commons


Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 8: Sharing Culture (pages 117-134)

If Congress treated the airwaves as a common asset, it would lease most of them at market rates for limited terms to the highest bidders. The billions of dollars thus raised could buy free airtime for political candidates, fund noncommercial radio and TV, and help sustain the arts.

Alternatively, Congress could turn the airwaves into an open access commons like roads and streets. Using technologies like wi-fi (wireless fidelity), everyone could enjoy high-speed Internet access for almost nothing. As of early 2006, nearly 150 U.S. cities were deploying or planning public wi-fi networks. These efforts are hampered by the fact that the frequencies allotted to wi-fi don’t travel as far, or penetrate buildings as well, as do the frequencies given to broadcasters. A bill to open unused TV channels for wi-fi has been introduced by a group of senators, but it faces stiff opposition from broadcasters, telephone, and cable companies.

The Internet

The Internet is a human-made commons that, for all intents and purposes, can be used without limit. It’s arguably the most remarkable technological achievement of the twentieth century, given that it revolutionizes commerce, community, and culture in one swoop. As with other valuable commons, it’s coveted by private corporations. The battle in coming years will be between those who want to privatize big chunks of the Internet, and those (including many corporations) who want it to be as free, universal, and open as possible. What’s unusual is that this is one of the few battlegrounds where those on the side of the commons have an early edge.

One looming battle concerns access — in particular, bridging the “last mile” between the Internet and the millions of people (billions worldwide) who could use it, but now don’t. When the Internet began, the last mile was typically crossed by telephone. A user would dial up an Internet server and log on. However, because telephone wires were sized for voice signals, they can’t carry high volumes of data at high speeds.

In due time, cable companies began offering their thicker cables to Internet users. Phone companies also came up with a system — DSL — that squeezes more data through their skinny wires. There are thus now two good ways to get high-speed access to the Internet — if you can afford roughly $30 a month, or $360 a year. Since not everyone can afford this, however, we have what some people call a digital divide — a financial barrier to universal access.

This is where the airwaves come in. Using digital signals, it’s now possible to bridge the last mile to the Internet through the public’s own airwaves. Not only that, it’s incredibly cheap to do so, using technologies like wi-fi. At the same time, another technical breakthrough is imminent: the Internet — including this last wireless mile — will soon be “thick” enough to carry data, telephone calls, and television pictures. In theory, a small public investment could bring all these services to the doorsteps of virtually everyone. There’d be no more need for private TV networks, telephone and cable companies. The so-called information highway would be, like public streets, truly open and free.

This is an extraordinary possibility. Americans now pay some $300 billion a year for telephone and cable services; perhaps half of this could be saved. That’s the equivalent of raising every worker’s take-home pay by about $1,000 a year. It should be cause for celebration.

What’s more, free universal Internet access would be a boon to the corporate side of the economy — another example of a commons having positive external benefits. Think of an urban shopping street, or Main Street in a small town. Merchants on these streets depend on foot traffic; the more passersby, the more sales they make. If someone put checkpoints or tollbooths on these streets, merchants would scream. So it is with the Internet. Everyone doing business on the Internet wants more traffic. Making the Internet free to all would be the best thing that ever happened to merchants.

Except, of course, for the phone-and-cable duopoly. In several states, these powerful companies have pushed through laws prohibiting cities from offering wireless Internet service, and they’ve sponsored a similar ban in Congress. The companies say their right to profit trumps the consumer’s right to save money and a city’s right to serve its citizens. Many politicians still buy that argument, so the end of this story has yet to be written.

A similar battle looms over what’s called “net neutrality.” At the moment, the Internet — like the telephone system — treats all content equally. No one’s data is discriminated against, and no one’s gets favored either — your personal webste is treated the same as Google’s. However, cable and phone companies want to create a two-tiered Internet, with some content providers getting slow speed and others — who pay the phone and cable companies — getting high speed. That would mean more revenue for the companies, but also a permanent divide between corporate content providers and everyone else.

Congress is now considering bills both to allow and to ban such tiering, and the outcome as this is written is uncertain. ... read the whole chapter



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper