Blown To Bits

National Broadband Plan, and HWCKL#2

Saturday, March 13th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

A pair of stories from today’s papers put the promise and peril of the digital explosion squarely before us.

The FCC is set to release its National Broadband Plan on Tuesday. There is good reporting on it in both the New York Times and Computerworld.The key catch phrase is “100 million squared”—get 100Mb/s broadband into 100 million homes by 2020. This is NOT an overly ambitious goal, though it may look to some as extravagant as it must once have looked to bring electricity, and then telephone service, to every rural farmhouse in America. Electricity and telephony were not just conveniences of civilization to which some political theorist thought agrarians should have the same access as city dwellers. They were engines of workplace efficiency and economic growth. The nation made investments, and supported private investments, in connecting Americans to these resources because it was good in the long run for everyone for everyone to be part of the network. So it is with broadband Internet today. Nor are the numbers ridiculous. Remember, Google is accepting applications to bring gigabit broadband, ten times faster, to some lucky community.

So the connectivity plan is all good. And it is also good that the plan anticipates broadband Internet being the mother of all media in the future, gobbling up telephone and television.

But somebody has to pay for it, and this is a lousy time to be asking taxpayers to foot the bill. If you think that the incumbent Internet providers are going to do the job anyway, think again. Verizon is slowing down its deployment of FIOS broadband. There is not enough competition to stir demand (though I would love to think that the Google initiative would create some).

The FCC can collect some money by re-directing the Universal Service Fund, the proceeds from a tax that supports telephone service to those Kansas farms. But a big chunk of the money has to come from elsewhere. And a likely candidate is spectrum auctions: Recovering underutilized parts of the spectrum from incumbent broadcasters, putting the spectrum up for auction to raise money, and also using some of the spectrum for connectivity and some for so-called “unlicensed” uses. Excellent.

The incumbent broadcasters, needless to say, hate this part. They see the writing on the wall and have their own plans for a vertically integrated Internet. The proposed Comcast-NBC merger is a perfect example of that: Put the content provider in bed with the content carrier. If that sounds like the way forward for connectivity, read the section of B2B where we talk about how Western Union’s exclusive deal with the Associated Press worked out for news dissemination in the 19th century.

Moreover, the incumbent broadcasters don’t see any reason to give up any of their spectrum. Except, of course, to paraphrase Scott Brown, it isn’t their spectrum. It’s the people’s spectrum. All the laws about the broadcast spectrum are clear about that.

What isn’t mentioned in the current reporting on the Broadband Plan is Net Neutrality. That may be just one too many battles for the FCC to take on—the scalding letter it received from the telecomms may have scared the Commission.

Now for the bad news.

The Texas Board of Education has adopted new standards for the state’s Social Studies Curriculum, rewriting history through a series of party-line votes on individual amendments. OK to mention Martin Luther King, but you have to talk about the Black Panthers in the same breath. Phyllis Shlafly and the Moral Majority are required subjects. “Capitalism,” curiously, is out—you have to say “free enterprise system.”

But this is the worst:

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone.

Oh my god, if you will pardon the expression (and even if you won’t). Aquinas unseats Jefferson in the Texas school system?

First of all, though the story says that the new curriculum “will put a conservative stamp on history,” this isn’t conservatism. It’s revisionism with a political agenda. These so-called conservatives are simply finding common cause with the reviled critical studies movement, skeptical that any ideals represented as products of the life of the mind are anything but a political power play. There should not be more dentists than historians on a panel rewriting history.

But where is the Bits angle in this story? It’s in this paragraph:

The board, whose members are elected, has influence beyond Texas because the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks. In the digital age, however, that influence has diminished as technological advances have made it possible for publishers to tailor books to individual state.

So I guess this is good news. If the citizens of Texas want their children to be ignorant, the digital revolution has created the technological support for their preferred version of American history. The textbook publishers no longer have to aim for the consensus view.

No more E pluribus, unum, in other words. We can just stay the many rather than becoming one through communication and education.

Homophily rules. Universal connectivity won’t bring us together; it will simply create the opportunity for likeminded souls, no matter how extreme and ridiculous their views, to come together in their own ignorant corners of the Internet. Or the nation. And that is How We Could Know Less, #2.

One Response to “National Broadband Plan, and HWCKL#2”

  1. Paola Fadel Says:

    Broadband is the best thing that has ever happened, not only is the internet faster and cheaper, it does not interfere with telephone connections. This has made internet access easy and lots of fun as downloading favorite videos, music and files take a very short time.