Federal Communications Commission
Daniel J. Weitzner
Center for Democracy and Technology
Expanding Access To the National Information Infrastructure For Individuals and Community Organizations: Open Architecture and Affordable, Digital Bandwidth
"The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green, or the
mails. . . . (T)he Internet may fairly be regarded as a never ending worldwide conversation."
ALA v. Department of Justice , 929 F.Supp. 824 (E.D.Pa. 1996) (opinion of J. Dalzell)
I. Introduction and Overview: Guiding Principles From The Internet Experience
We commend the Commission for holding this forum to explore means of providing affordable, widely available access to the NII in general, and the Internet in particular. The growth of the Internet gives the Federal Communications Commission a unique opportunity to advance one of its core communications policy goals: providing Americans with ready access to a diversity of information sources and communication opportunities. In these brief remarks, CDT hopes to offer observations on critical factors which have lead to the dramatic growth of the Internet, unique characteristics which make the Internet a rich forum for democratic discourse, and lessons for the future that we can take from these developments.
The Internet has shown that both choice of architecture and cost of service are essential to providing widespread access to a diversity of information. The Internet manifests five critical attributes in its basic architecture that give it such potential to enhance democratic discourse:
- Decentralized, gatekeeper-free access;
- Bi-directional, interactive capability;
- Multiple, competitive access points;
- Open standards;
- Affordable service.
In considering policies to promote broader access to advanced communications infrastructure, we hope that the Commission will take these characteristics as baseline policy goals. The democratic potential of the Internet will only be realized with broad access to the Net for both individuals and community organizations. The Commission can help bring that potential of the Internet to the broad cross-section of the population by encouraging the development of new access options that promote these essential attributes of the Internet architecture.
II. Open, Decentralized Architecture
The strength of the Internet derives from both affordable access and a uniquely open architecture. Traditional communications media such as radio and television have been affordable and readily available around the country, but have failed to enable full democratic because of architectural limitations. For example, online discussions of political issues enable users to exchange views, and even pose questions to political figures, in a way that broadcast television can never support. The Internet's architecture allows for a diversity of views and exchange of information which are simply impossible in any other communications medium.
The Internet supports such a great diversity of opinion, ideas, and information because it is a decentralized network. A user can create a new web site or participate in a Usenet newsgroup without obtaining permission in advance from any central authority. For example, to create a Web page that will be publicly accessible to millions of Internet users around the world, one need only find a Internet-connected computer and, often, pay that operator of that computer for web site hosting service. The decentralized architecture of the Internet has guaranteed that there will be numerous web site hosts from which to chose. Unlike traditional broadcast media, the Internet has no central control point. Anyone with content to publish or ideas to exchange can do so from any point on the network.
Equally important, the resources needed to establish a new web page or post a new idea are essentially unlimited. Adding a new web page or a new newsgroup posting does not require that another site or page be eliminated from the Net. In fact, the marginal cost of the last web page added to the net is equal to or less than the cost of the first page. This is an environment characterized by an abundance of communications opportunities.
This abundance stands in sharp contrast to the scarcity of channels and spectrum which has been such a prominent feature, for example, of the broadcast and cable television media. Broadcasting a program on today's television systems requires that one compete for, and usually pay a high price for, a channel slot under the control of the broadcaster or cable operator. The high demand for channels in traditional media has raised their cost far beyond the means of most community organizations and all but the wealthiest individuals. As new infrastructure access options develop it is critical that they continue to support access in this decentralized manner.
All Internet users are able to be both speakers and listeners, publishers and readers, content providers and content consumers. The bi-directional, interactive nature of the Net is another key attribute that makes it such a unique and effective forum for democratic discourse. Indeed, only on the proverbial town square is there a greater degree of interactive, back-and-forth communications than what is possible online. As advanced telecommunications access services develop, it will be essential to assure continued, up-stream and down-stream, interactive communications paths.
From the beginning, the Internet was designed to support multiple access points. Initially, this was to meet military planners need for a disaster-proof network. Today, we all reap the benefit of this decentralized architecture that allows more service providers to connect to the Net every day and make new services available. In most areas of the country, Internet access is available from a variety of sources, including small and large Internet service providers, commercial online services, schools and libraries, freenets and other community networks, as well as traditional bulletin board systems (BBSs) linked to the Internet.
The growth, technical advances, and increasingly wide reach of the Internet has been spurred in recent years by the vibrant, competitive market for Internet access services. Citizens and organizations that rely on the Internet have been the beneficiaries of this competitive environment. Service providers compete to offer better prices, more reliable basic access, and innovative new services such as web site hosting with the latest web server features.
The benefits of an open access network go beyond mere price competition. Open interconnection features of the Internet assure that services will develop to meet the varying needs of the diverse Internet user community, from large corporations to small libraries, individuals, and small community organizations. A great diversity of users is made possible because a variety of service providers are able to co-exist on the Internet. This breadth of users creates the potential for a true diversity of opinion and ideas in online forums.
An open standards environment allows the Internet to evolve innovative new services to meet changing user needs. From year to year, the face of the Internet changes. Today, many people think of and experience the Internet as primarily the World Wide Web. Yet, two or three years ago, the Web was little more than an experimental service being developed in a physics laboratory in Switzerland. This year's World Wide Web is vastly different, and more powerful, flexible, and easy to use than it was last year. At a more technical level, Internet routing and addressing protocols are evolving in order to meeting increasing usage levels around the world.
These and other technical advances have been possible because of the open, public standards on which the Internet is built. In this open environment, new technologies can be developed and deployed by various members of the Internet community. New standards which gain popularity are adopted by the Net as a whole, while others are not. This development process, however, can proceed relatively easily because the basic Internet standards are public and available as building blocks for new developments.
The Internet's architecture is what makes it unique, but it would be of no use if access were too expensive for users. There are good reasons to believe that information on the Internet will be inherently more affordable than other media. However, as multimedia and other high-bandwidth applications become more popular the ability of the voice-call oriented telecommunications infrastructure to maintain affordable access to the Net will be called into question.
Three separate cost elements ought to be distinguished in this discussion: 1) the cost of a personal computer or other access hardware; 2) the cost of Internet or online services; and 3) the cost of the underlying telecommunications service which connects the user to the Internet or online service. Hardware costs remain substantial, but new developments in the market such as WebTV, network computers, and consumer-oriented PCs suggest that this barrier may be easing. Internet access service costs continue to decrease in the face of a competitive market. Finally, although the low cost of basic telephone service (especially flat rate local calling) has been viewed as a significant boon to the Net, most Internet users around the country have no viable option other than slow, analog phone lines. Internet users need more choices -- particularly architectural choices -- in the market for the basic telecommunications components of Internet access in order to maintain affordable, higher-bandwidth methods of access to the network.
The question of affordable access is raised most directly in the Commission's ongoing proceedings on Internet access fees. CDT will be filing comments in those proceedings and will seek to address these issues more fully at that time.
III. Conclusion: Toward a More Affordable, Higher Capacity, Digital, Decentralized Network Infrastructure
Again, we commend the Commission for beginning this inquiry into the question of how to promote the availability of higher bandwidth services. The challenge facing the Commission and other policy makers going forward is to enable users to have access to increasingly high capacity, affordable digital access options in a manner that is consistent with the fundamental architectural characteristics that have made the Internet such an important new medium. High bandwidth service is needed, but is only useful where it maintains the open, decentralized, competitive environment that has helped the Internet grow to serve democratic values.
Achieving all these goals, in the context of other changes occurring throughout the telecommunications market, will indeed be a challenge. CDT does not come to this forum with a fixed policy prescription, but rather a hope that the Commission's activities can be guided by the stunning success already manifest in the development of the Internet. When sitting to consider the application of First Amendment principles to the Internet, a federal court in Philadelphia found that the Internet is "the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed...." The extraordinary success of the Internet thus far, and the great potential that it holds out, should serve as a model for the Commission in advancing its basic communications policy objectives.