The Evolution of the Narrowband Internet: Driving the Economy and Empowering Democracy

Open and decentralized, the current “narrowband” Internet is the most democratic and dynamic form of mass communications ever created. The narrowband Internet operates without gatekeepers. It is not limited by scarce spectrum or dependent on other scarce resources. Anyone who wants to can be a publisher and can reach the entire world simply and inexpensively. Barriers to entry are low, and anyone who wants to can become an Internet Service Provider and a part of the global network on an equal par with others. The Internet’s broad availability gives business, non-profit organizations and individuals an unprecedented ability to speak, and allows listeners to receive information, free from governmental or private interference. To make decisions on the policy issues that arise from the emergence of broadband technologies, it is important to understand how the Internet developed, how the narrowband Internet works today, and how regulation affects the Internet. Discover the historical context of the Internet and of the emerging broadband technologies en brief following within.

The extraordinary growth and innovation of the Internet, its ability to empower individuals, and its role in promoting free expression and democratic values depend critically on openness principles that have characterized the “narrowband” world of dial-up access. Some of these principles relate to the openness of the Internet’s standards and software. Some are engineering principles, designed to make the Internet function flexibly and efficiently. Others are policy choices regarding the telephone system, made before the Internet existed. These architectural elements and policy choices have implemented values as well as enabled communication.

The openness of the narrowband Internet has been responsible for the most democratic and dynamic form of mass communications ever created. As expressed by Judge Dalzell in ACLU v. Reno, “the Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green, or the mails.” The Internet allows anyone to reach the entire world simply and inexpensively. It enables the unprecedented ability of speakers to speak and allows listeners to receive content, free from governmental or private interference.

Preserving openness and the dynamic nature of the Internet is critical to maintaining the democratic character of this medium as the Internet is transformed from the narrowband technologies of dial-up modems and slow content delivery to the “broadband” world of cable modems, DSL, wireless, and other technologies that deliver high-speed Internet access. Emerging broadband Internet technologies offer advantages over narrowband access that will enhance and expand the Internet’s usefulness to users. Broadband Internet will allow subscribers to send or receive video and audio content of digital quality and to download interactive, graphic-rich webpages. The high-speed technology will enable entrepreneurs to bring new services to market that will make the Internet interactive in real time.

However, critical differences between the narrowband and broadband Internet could change the open nature of the Internet and raise the possibility that this dynamic and democratic medium might come to be dominated and in part controlled by a small number of private companies. Until now, this open quality has allowed Internet users a wide range of choices about how to access the Internet and what to do with the communications medium once online. As the Internet evolves from narrowband technologies to broadband, it is imperative to maintain openness and the empowering and democratizing characteristics of the Internet that flow from that openness. Policymakers face the momentous challenge of ensuring that the empowering aspects of the Internet of the past ten years are carried over into the Internet of the new century.

The Narrrowband Internet

The beginnings of narrowband Internet are well known, but it is worth recalling their implications for the transition to broadband. Narrowband Internet had its origins in ARPANET, an early data communications network developed in the late 1960s under the auspices of the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (“DARPA”). A number of different individual networks of linked computers developed in the 1970s, typically to serve specific segments of the academic or governmental communities. The National Science Foundation (“NSF”) spearheaded an effort in the 1980s to link these networks using common protocols. NSF, while it financed the initial Internet “backbone” carrying communications between the linked government and academic networks also through its policies encouraged the development of private competitive backbone networks. The usefulness of these networks depended upon the ability of individual users to access them via the “last mile” of the telephone line via modem.

It is accepted wisdom that the Internet has prospered because it has not been regulated. On many levels this wisdom is true, except it is also true that the Internet prospered because the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) imposed significant regulation on the facilities over which most people access the narrowband Internet ‚ the telephone system. The successful shift of the narrowband Internet from a publicly funded effort to a private sector, commercial effort providing services to individual users through the telephone network depended on critical non-regulatory and regulatory decisions by the FCC ‚ in some cases to regulate, in others not to:

The FCC’s 1968 Carterfone decision struck down a prohibition against customer connecting their own telephone equipment to AT&T’s network. Rejecting claims by AT&T that third party equipment and services would harm the network, the FCC determined that customers could connect their own equipment to the network, so long as the equipment did not in fact harm the functioning of the network. The Carterfone decision opened the door to the development and improvement of a piece of equipment vital to today’s Internet ‚ the modem used to transmit data signals over ordinary telephone lines.

The FCC made a further decision to regulate in its First Computer Inquiry in 1970. In that decision, the FCC forced facility owning companies to (a) segregate their data businesses and (b) provide vital telephone services to data service competitors without favoritism or discrimination.

In that same decision, however, the FCC decided not to regulate data service companies. Thus, the FCC laid the groundwork for the explosion of thousands of ISPs competing to offer better, faster, cheaper Internet service.

Taken together, the First Computer Inquiry and Carterfone decisions were significant and affirmative regulatory steps that permitted the creation and ultimate explosion of the Internet.

Rollout of Broadband Technologies

Technologies supporting high-speed transmission of data have been available for years, but only at a substantial price. Widely affordable broadband services are currently emerging, along with a mass interest in and market for those services. The new market for broadband services is an outgrowth of technological improvements, increased competition, and increased acceptance of and interest in the Internet.

At its simplest, broadband allows higher speed transmission of data. But it also makes it possible for the user’s Internet connection to be “always on” ‚ in other words, the Internet can always be available, allowing users to seek information from the Internet far more often than with dial-up access. Broadband also allows users access to much more video and other high bandwidth content than would be possible over a narrowband connection.

These capabilities give users a far wider range of potential uses for the Internet. Professionally, users will be able to telecommute and establish home offices by enabling access to corporate networks, e-mail systems, and videoconferencing. Broadband will facilitate the creation of home-based businesses though web serving, e-commerce with customers and financial functions. Broadband Internet will allow a wider range of entertainment activities, including web surfing at higher speeds with richer video content, video on demand, and interactive, multi-player video games. Consumers will be able to shop, access telemedicine, participate in distance learning, take advantage of public services, research information and videoconference with friends and family.

Technologies for Broadband

There are a variety of different and competing technologies that promise to deliver broadband Internet access to both individual and business users. The leading technologies are Digital Subscriber Line (“DSL”) service and “cable modem” service, with wireless, satellite and other technologies still emerging.

Cable: In the mid-1990s, the cable industry undertook the massive and expensive conversion of its traditional cable facilities into systems that (a) could support two-way transmission of signals, and (b) had a much higher capacity to support analog video signals, digital video signals, and data signals. As of August 1999, over one million homes in North America subscribe to cable modem service, 300,000 of which are in Canada. Cable systems pass approximately 90% of the homes in the US. The leading US cable operators forecast that 90% of their systems will have been upgraded by the end of the year 2000, and forecasts suggest that by 2001, cable modem service will be an option for as many as 80 million homes in the United States.

Digital Subscriber Line ‚ DSL: Digital Subscriber Line (“DSL”) uses existing copper wires to provide high speed data services. The technology was developed in the late 1980s and was first widely used for non-Internet specific applications. With asynchronous DSL (“ADSL”), a high-speed data connection can be run over the same wire that is used to carry a regular phone line. Thus, ADSL can share an existing wire with a user’s existing voice telephone line, permitting both DSL and telephone services to be used at the same time. ADSL service operates on dedicated wires that are unaffected by high usage by neighbors. Theoretically, ADSL service will provide more reliable, but somewhat slower Internet access than cable modem service. There are two primary types of DSL providers: Incumbent local exchange carriers (“ILECs”) such as Verizon and Bell South (historically the primary local telephone companies in their regions), and competitive local exchange carriers (“CLECs”), such as Covad. At the end of 1999, an estimated 500,000 DSL lines were deployed in the United States, with about 75% being ILEC lines and 25% being CLEC lines. Deployment has exploded in the year 2000, and significant growth is expected in later years.

Other Technologies: Broadband will also be available over terrestrial wireless and other technologies. Although significantly less established and deployed than cable and DSL broadband services, terrestrial wireless services using land-based transmitters can also provide broadband services to businesses and individuals. While a number of different technological approaches will be available, it is not clear which will be successful in the marketplace. Nevertheless, it is likely that for some categories of users, broadband wireless will compete with cable and DSL services to provide broadband access to the Internet.

Beyond cable, DSL, and terrestrial wireless services, other broadband access methods are still in development or testing. Satellite access technology will use satellites to deliver Internet access to homes and businesses. Fiber optic lines running directly into users homes and businesses ‚ often referred to as “fiber-to-the-home” ‚ will deliver broadband. Although fiber does not share the same technological uncertainties facing satellite systems, it is not clear whether it will be economically viable to run fiber optic wires through existing residential neighborhoods. Finally, a number of schemes to use power lines to transport Internet access services have been explored over the past few years, but none of them yielded marketable service offering. If powerline based services are successfully developed, utility companies could become players in the broadband access market.

An Overview of the Policy Debate

The most significant policy questions have involved the cable industry and efforts by ISPs and others to offer services over cable systems. Other questions relate to the provision of DSL services, while other issues are more general in focus. Resolution of the cable or DSL specific issues could have direct implications in other technology areas. For example, how policymakers resolve the “access to cable” issues could affect the development and deployment of wireless technology. These decisions should be made with a broad perspective of the Internet.

Cable-Specific Issues: The key broadband issues that specifically relate to Internet access over cable systems are rooted in the broad policy question of whether cable-based Internet access should be treated similar to cable television service (which has been largely unregulated) or similar to telephone service (which has been subject to significant regulation). Some cable companies have argued that additional regulations should not be imposed on the cable industry, even if it is providing Internet access. On the other hand, proponents of “open access” have argued that the regulations applicable to the telephone system has been vital to the growth of the Internet, and similar regulations should be imposed on Internet access over cable. Finally, some local telephone service providers have argued that the incongruity in the levels of regulation for the telephone and cable industries should be resolved by reducing regulations applicable to telephone service, rather than by imposing regulation on cable-based Internet service.

DSL-Specific Issues: The broadband issues relating to Internet access over digital subscriber line (“DSL”) systems generally involve the ability of competitive local exchange carriers (“CLECs”) to compete with incumbent local exchange carriers (“ILECs”). Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ILECs are required to make certain pieces, or “elements” of their network available to CLECs to enable CLECs to compete with the ILECs in the provision of local phone service and Internet access service. The policy questions center around whether the ILECs are fully complying with their statutory and regulatory obligations to act properly toward, and compete fairly with, the CLECs. Most of the DSL specific issues reflect CLEC challenges to ILEC actions, and are already the subject of legal or regulatory proceedings at the state and/or federal levels. As a general matter, the CLECs do not seek major changes in laws or regulation, but instead seek stronger and faster enforcement of existing regulations and statutes.

The Emerging Broadband Content Distribution Model: A vitally important result of the Internet’s infrastructure is that any speaker on the Internet can reach any listener. On the Internet, a single speaker and the largest media company have roughly the same abilities to speak and be heard. There is significant risk on a broadband Internet, where locally-based broadband content servers deliver broadband content quickly to consumers, the major means of broadband distribution will be the proprietary domains of large companies or wealth speakers, ending the rough equality among speakers so critical to the Internet’s promotion and facilitation of democracy.


Broadband Backgrounder: Public Policy Issues Raised By Broadband Technology: Issued by the Broadband Access Project
of the Center for Democracy & Technology

With its Broadband Access Project, CDT seeks to ensure that the characteristics of the narrowband Internet that were so critical in Reno, and the legal principles that came out of that case, continue to thrive as the Internet moves into the broadband world. The Project has looked at all forms of broadband access that are emerging as ways to reach the Internet, including cable modems, digital subscriber lines, satellites, and terrestrial wireless services. CDT has worked closely with a broad cross-section of the Internet, computer, and communications industries, as well as with consumer groups and other interested parties. It has developed a comprehensive and balanced assessment of where the technology is today, where it can be tomorrow, and what impact the new technology will have on speech and access to content on the Internet.

This Paper was prepared by John B. Morris, Jr., Director of the Broadband Access Project. Mr. Morris is a Partner with the Washington, D.C. office of the law firm Jenner & Block. In 1996, he was one of the lead trial counsel representing the industry and association plaintiffs in American Library Association v. Reno/ACLU v. Reno, the constitutional challenge to the Communications Decency Act. During 1999-2000, he took a leave of absence from his firm to work with CDT and its Broadband Access Project.

The full report from which this brief is from explains what the broadband openness debate is about, and describes the major broadband delivery technologies, focusing on cable modem access. It finds that openness is feasible and critically necessary across a broad range of technologies to preserving the free-speech and democracy enhancing character of the Internet. It provides a factual primer and considered analysis of the issues, while it leaves to policymakers and public debate the questions of what constitutes openness, and how best to achieve it.

A Focus on the Cable “Third Party Access” Debate

Far and away the most contested issue relating to broadband access to the Internet is the “open access” or “forced access” issue ‚ whether cable system operators must permit unaffiliated Internet Service Providers to offer Internet access services over the cable facility. As is done in Canada, where cable modem deployment and “open access” are both more advanced than in the United States, this paper uses the term “third party access” to refer to this policy issue.

Without drawing conclusions, the paper looks closely at the specific arguments and claims made in the third party access debate. Unlike the telephone system, cable has not been subject to regulation as a common carrier. The paper examines the decision not to regulate cable and its effect on the debate about imposing a third party access requirement on the cabel industry. The paper probes the claims made by advocates of mandatory third party access, including the risk of censorship and concerns about anticompetitive behavior. It also discusses the claims made by opponents of mandatory third party access, including the incentives to upgrade the cable systems to support Internet access, the potential for a regulatory morass, and the constitutional rights of cable operators.

However, the paper does find that openness is feasible. It examines the technological issues surrounding feasibility, concerns raised by the shared nature of the cable network, and whether there is validity to the much debated (but no longer enforced) “10 minute” limit imposed on streaming video over cable systems. For each of these issues, the paper offers an informed and balanced assessment of whether the claims and arguments are justified. It finds that, as demonstrated by the recent movement by leading U.S. cable companies to accept some form of voluntary open access, no one is strongly asserting that it is not possible. It further finds that, while concerns are inherent in the provision of Internet access over a cable system, many of these are present with or without third party access, and many will be resolved as engineers turn their attention to designing equipment that supports third party access in cable systems . As the debate has evolved, there is no longer any serious question about whether third party access is feasible or desirable ‚ it is both. The main focus of the debate today is on how third party access will be implemented.


Read more and Investigate further . . . click the link below to access the full report.

Author: Broadband Access Project

News Service: Center for Democracy & Technology