When They Turn On The Grid, Neutrality Matters
The future, probably without the flying cars, the one you see in the movies with holograms, with instant and ubiquitous informational access and unbelievable computer processing capabilities, isn’t too far off. It won’t be built on the current Internet, though. The Internet is totally 20th Century. The red button on the Grid will be pushed this summer, and will change everything—again.
Instead of dreamy startups this time around, though, you can bet the companies at the forefront are names you know: Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, News Corp., AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, et cetera, et cetera. It will be the most innovative and useful entities, however, with dreams and savvy as they nimbly climb up through the pipes, that will outshine the entrenched behemoths.
So long as the behemoths allow that kind of thing. Right now, they’re putting on a bit of a dog and pony show to distract regulators and the public with issues that are important, but that have definite expiration dates. It’s a money thing. It’s about squeezing every cent out of copper wiring and old-world business models while they still can.
So far, so long as they don’t fall to the dark side eventually, so long as they stay a sort of un-corporation, Google is our best ally in the years ahead. Others have more interest in controlling the pipes and the cash flow than they do in preserving the greatness this next digital revolution will bring to us. Worst case scenario: The Internet becomes TV, complete with recycled, simplified, sanitized, zombified content, brought to you by…
The Times Online explains the Grid in a way your mother can understand. Cern, the Switzerland-based quantum physicists that brought us the World Wide Web at the end of the last century discovered there wasn’t enough capacity in the whole Internet to compute the complicated math needed to pursue theoretically existent subatomic particles. A standard Internet-connected PC would take centuries to analyze the data.
So they developed the Grid, which is 10,000 times faster than the Internet we know, connected via fiber-optic routing systems worldwide, eleven in the U.S. They’ll turn it on this summer, accessible by the academics at first, and within two years the 55,000 servers currently in place will increase to 200,000 as the aforementioned prospectors stake their claims.
If you’ve heard the geeks at Google or Microsoft talk about the data in the cloud—where all the information you currently store on your PC is moved online—or if you’ve heard Google describe the way its servers are set up to balance one another to make search results faster, they were talking about the same concept.
The Grid’s implementation will mean cheap or cost-free, fluid video telephony, films downloaded faster than you could type the title, and holograms of your grandkids playing in your den. It could also mean computing power strong enough that interactive takes on a whole new meaning.
For governments it will mean more chaos and more misunderstandings about the Tubes. For network providers, media companies, and online powerhouses it means money.
Lots of it.
For you, it means having to describe to your grandkids that television programming and the Internet were once accessed by separate machines, and before that, choices were very limited.
"Although the grid itself is unlikely to be directly available to domestic internet users," explains Times Online science editor, Jonathan Leake, "many telecoms providers and businesses are already introducing its pioneering technologies. One of the most potent is so-called dynamic switching, which creates a dedicated channel for internet users trying to download large volumes of data such as films."
Put another way: The telco/cable-side of the Net Neutrality argument about capacity issues, about incentive to invest, about the network grinding to a halt unless they prioritize, control, and shape traffic, is either moot, specious, deceptive, misdirecting, or intended for the short-term. In the long term, it’s about gradual upgrades, not immediate ones. In the long term, it’s about squeezing every penny they can out of consumers by upgrading to ‘unlimited" in a very gradual and controlled way.
Do you really think it costs them anything to send an SMS message from mobile to mobile? While you’re thinking of ways to break your teenager’s texting thumbs without getting blamed, consider that Docomo just wirelessly sent 250 Mbps (5 times Verizon’s best fiber offering) on an existing network, much more on the next generation.
It could be a while before we really see the true capabilities of the Grid, if ever, in the States, so long as long-term upgrade strategies remain in effect. There’s no money in giving you everything at once.
The Stakes Are Huge
Google’s stated mission, and the reason the company has been such a powerful (and to some frightening) force, is to index the world’s information. The Father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, is on that mission as well, a mission that will take, by 20th Century technology, 300 years, as CEO Eric Schmidt famously quipped. The Grid could make that indexing time noticeably shorter.
A couple of years ago, Google mysteriously bought up tons of dark fiber across the country, which they’ve never directly commented on, and have been busy setting up massive data centers everywhere. They work with NASA; they dabble in mobile; and they take noisy stances against telecommunications giants by rallying up support for open initiatives.
Google knows something, and that something is that if telecoms and cable companies are permitted to run closed networks and manipulate the Grid, then Google loses, too. Though Google’s motives are probably more self-centered and survival-based than utopian, the company represents a sort of white knight for the end-user. What’s bad for the information/advertising business is bad for us as well. They’ll have the ability and the incentive to keep the next incarnation of the Internet open, just as it has been. The same way steel and oil and medicine were manipulated last century to create an impression of scarcity is the same way some companies are looking to manipulate the next great cash cow in this century. Fortunately, a behemoth like Google has opposite (monetary) interests, and represents our best hope.
Governments will have little incentive to help out. They need cooperation from the network providers to police the unprecedented amount of information flowing across their networks. Nothing like a little legal immunity to make sure backs keep getting scratched. While the DOJ acts like they’re within their rights to snoop, the FCC does a dance around the country to give an appearance of concern about Comcast and their traffic-shaping policies.
But so far it’s just lip service.
They’re not alone. All the giants are jockeying for position on this. The RIAA and MPAA have a definite stake and powerful, multitudinous lobbyists. If they think piracy’s a problem now, just wait until movies and music are whipping across the Internet as instant as a text message. A neutral Internet, where ISPs aren’t able to snoop into and manipulate packets, is bad for their business, too.
And television? AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, all want to provide that on their networks, alongside telephony services, and any number of others possible. For fifty years in television there was a huge cost barrier at the platform level and at the production level. That allowed messages and content to be better controlled and monetized. All that control allows for tiered networks similar to cable TV, similar to mobile phone plans that force consumers into bundles of services and extra expense for every, well, extra.
An open, hyper-fast Net makes that business model obsolete and scatters once clumped-together audiences into infinite niches. The MPAA doesn’t just lobby on behalf of movie studios. Its membership includes TV-connected NBC Universal, Warner Brothers, Disney, and Twentieth Century Fox.
That brings News Corp. into this issue, who leads the way in media consolidation and message crafting, and who leads or is a major participant in the next great merger race to create online supermonsters. As Yahoo mulls a deal with AOL (which gives Google even more control of the online ad space, Microsoft gladly protests) and outsourcing its search ads to Google in order to thwart a Microsoft buyout, News Corp. is said to be cavorting with Microsoft to up the ante. Microsoft, it is fair to say, has never been fond of all those open standards, or cloud-computing for that matter. What’s good for Google is usually bad for Microsoft.
Just to help you keep tabs on who is connected to whom in these incredible power-plays to have a nice, controlling interest in the eventual Grid, here is the flow chart: Microsoft, News Corp., the MPAA, the RIAA, all the telcos and cable companies, shareholders and board members who cross over onto other boards, world governments, one hand in somebody else’s pocket, the other hand on somebody else’s back, yes, it’s a beautiful trillion-dollar symphony, something very, very hard to compete with.
On the other side, it’s Google (hopefully to stay), a few others, and a growing landscape of concerned citizens who want, need, and deserve to keep an open Internet so there can be more Googles and YouTubes and Facebooks in the future. The other route brings sanitized, test-marketed and focus-grouped, tailored messages, approved content, and the high barriers to entry that keep true competition out of the marketplace.