Monday, March 31, 2008

Open Fiber: John St. Julien

John St. Julien: The name of this session is open fiber. I'm of two minds about this open thing. One side of me, the geek and the wonk think it's about open systems and that it'll all work itself out. The other part of me is the historian and activist. These two guys don't get along, so I've segregated them. You get the historian and activist.

What is this open fiber thing? We're not citizens of the Net, we're clients. We're little better than serfs. A key element of any feudal system is that the lord of the manor controls access to the land. Think about your terms of service with AT&T and Cox. This is roughly your condition. They can kick you off for next to no reason. They don't have to follow their own rules consistently. They give themselves an amazing level of structural arrogance. That's what's driving us toward some kind of geekish and wonkish solution. But I don't think that's what we want. We want to be full citizens.

In medeival times, they did the Enlightenment, and then they did a revolution. They overthrew the old order. As soon as they realized there was something better, they went after it. We don't believe that that's possible. Tim is the perfect case of the counter-example. Of course it's possible. We can own our own network.

Lafayette, Louisiana, is a place in which we've done just that. This is a very hopeful thing, more hopeful than wiring up all of Vermont because Lafayette is one of the most conservative cities in one of the most conservative states. It's an oil town. It thinks Houston takes second stage in purity. But it's really something they want to do. How could it happen in Lafayette?

Back in the day, there was a bunch of malcontents that convinced a group of economic leaders it'd be a good idea to put in fiber just for government. There was all sorts of opposition to that. It was from the lords of the manor, who acted like it was outrageous. They did it anyway, and there was basic resentment that built up from that. Then they said this is crazy; we should provide retail service to every home in the city.

The malcontents lost that, but people heard the argument. People remembered the argument, but they forgot who said it. We got a new mayor who was really naive. He asked the incumbents if they would do this for him. They said no in such insulting terms that they offended him. So he went to the mat. The malcontents immediately jumped in and got on board. They got a big grassroots movement.

The assumption was that there'd be a group of old-money guys who'd run the thing. They'd do expensive polls, a big TV campaign. Their opposition faded. They weren't there. More power was handed to the grassroots operation. We won two to one, a clear, stunning victory.

Did we get what we wanted from it? We just wanted to be treated with some respect. We're going to get a network that's basically one huge intranet. Average speed citizen to citizen will be 100 Mbps. They'll offer it for 20% less than the incumbents were offering it. We'll have our own stable, static IPs to work out of. We'll have a wireless network hanging out that. Because we have fiber running down every street, it won't have to be meshed. You can do what you want with that much wifi.

We're also exploring a different kind of digital divide issue. What the current plan is is to use every cable box to provide wireless Internet as well. What you end up with is a whole swath of people having access who never had access before.

The question isn't so much the technical issues when we talk about openness but whether you want to own it in the long run. If you don't own it, you don't get the right to make those choices.

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