1960’s-era AT&T engineers laugh at your so-called packet switch-eeng.
Of all the facets of the net neutrality debate, the one that irks me the most is this: Private enterprise is railing against government regulation of a resource the government created, a resource that private enterprise could never have built if it had a thousand lifetimes to try.
A dramatic claim, you say? Let’s have a look at the landscape of online services, pre-1995. It looks much like a map of some medieval realm, with a few tall castles surrounded by small, disconnected hamlets. The castles were CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online (Apple and General Electric tried to build castles too, but they sank into the swamp).
If you were a paying guest in of one of these castles, you could communicate with other guests, buy from merchants who set up shops within the castle walls, and enjoy whatever amusements the castle had to offer. The data zipped across the country on high-speed lines, but had to slow down to travel across the phone line to the customer’s modem.
If you wanted to communicate with a guest in another castle, you needed to pay for a membership to that castle as well. Why, you might grumble, can’t I just send a message from Castle A to Castle P? Because Castle A wants Castle P’s customers as its own, and vice-versa, so neither has any incentive to allow interconnectivity. Likewise for the other content, the commerce, the games, the chat rooms: The monthly access fees pay for it all, so the castle will never offer these services free to outsiders.
And who were those outsiders? Tens of thousands of tiny bulletin board systems (BBS), running from home computers hooked up to jury-rigged trunk lines. Many were mini-castles, closed to all but their users, but some were linked together by software known as FidoNet, creating an internet (a network of networks).
Could this lower-case internet have evolved into The Internet? Let’s speculate. FidoNet used a “store and forward” approach to passing messages from one network to the next — acceptable for email and message board postings, but not robust enough for real-time communications. Furthermore, users dialed in using modems and phone lines.
But perhaps some enterprising entrepreneurs could step in and speed things up. They’d have to start by replacing FidoNet’s store-and-forward with a nimbler packet-switching system that broke large data streams into manageable chunks for efficient routing. And you’d need to do something about the speed; even if users are stuck with dialing in on slow phone lines, the individual networks could be tied together by high-speed lines.
Naturally, no entrepreneur or private capital will pay for all of this unless they can monetize it, so the whole thing will have to be exclusive. Users will have to pay monthly service fees, and there can’t be any connectivity with outside networks because you’d be giving a key product benefit away for free. And to help draw in customers, there would be content and commerce and games and… Hold on a second. This is starting to look like just another curated castle. So where is The Internet going to come from?
From the U.S. government, specifically the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense. Looking for a networking scheme that couldn’t be disrupted by enemy attack, its engineers developed what would become the Internet Protocols. (When one of these engineers, Paul Baran, presented the idea of packet-switching to engineers at AT&T in the 1960’s, they thought he was nuts.) These protocols fueled a network that grew and evolved until the government placed it in private hands in 1995, ushering in the era of the commercial Internet we enjoy today.
Since then, business has put the resource to amazing use. In its nearly two decades as a commercial resource, the Internet has inspired new applications and products, replaced crumbling commercial models with shiny new ones, created new jobs while eliminating others — a rocket sled, for better or worse, into the twenty-first century.
And while the effects of private enterprise have been phenomenal, they took place atop a platform that private capital could never create. Only the government, free from any need to show profit, could create a network built upon open data sharing, with no admission fees other than the cost to connect.
Capital, by comparison, seeks rents everywhere, and it’s this impulse to monetize that would have limited the Information Age landscape to nothing but closed-off castles and humble hamlets for the balance of Time.
So when you hear some buffoon shriek that “the Internet should not operate at the speed of government,” remember that the government built that Internet when nobody else could. And now that private enterprise, in its predictable rent-seeking fashion, has signaled its eagerness to cut that Internet into two speeds — regular and extra-slow — it’s time for the government to stop them.