I gave this talk at the Broadband Communities Summit today, April 10, in Austin TX.

[These remarks are  more or less “as delivered.” I edited them to reflect my last minute changes on 4/14/14.]

I’m honored to be in front of an audience that is building networks that are alternatives to the local telephone company and cable company. You are doing THE good work.

But I need to tell you something. I get a little bit sick when I hear “broadband, broadband, broadband.” To a first approximation it does not matter how many shmegabits or shmigabits your networks run at. The important thing is that your networks connect to the Internet. The Internet is what makes your broadband networks valuable. Let’s not forget that the Internet became popular at 28.8 and 56 KILObits a second. Broadband without the Internet ain’t worth squat.

So let’s not talk about broadband — for a change — Lets talk about the Internet.

Like many of the unreasonable people who imagine an ideal future and ask “Why not?” on whose shoulders we all stand, I have a dream …

I have a dream that the Internet harnesses the best impulses of humanity, that the Internet opens doors for us to replace ignorance with curiosity, cruelty with empathy , and privation with productivity.

I have a dream that, thanks to the Internet, we think of the people in Accra or Bejing or Caracas as “us” not “them” — as US, the same way that we think of the people of Austin, Boston and Chicago.

I have a dream that, thanks to the Internet, a cornucopia of new and wonderful applications that we can’t even imagine today will make our lives more satisfying and productive tomorrow.

I have a dream that, thanks to the Internet, the climate problem will be solved by smart vehicles and smart energy and smart food production, all networked together for optimum resource usage and minimum planetary impact.

I have a dream that, thanks to the Internet, the two billion human beings who live on less than dollar a day will connect to food and water and medical care, to transparent, democratic governance, to customers, suppliers, markets, innovative ideas and, ultimately, to incomes that will lift them out of poverty

I have a dream that one of these two billion people is already smart enough to be another Einstein, that another is so compassionate as to be another Gandhi, that another is so wise as to be another Mandella . . . and that someday soon we will discover their blog, subscribe to their flickr photo stream and read their tweets.

If the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King had seen the Internet today, he might have said, “Mine eyes have seen the glory.”

But I also have a nightmare . . .

In my nightmare, the sons and daughters of the people who grew rich and powerful harvesting the resources of the last century have convinced us that they need to — quote-unquote — “manage” — what they call — quote-unquote — “my pipes” so that they know every single thing we do on the Internet, everything we see, everything we read, everything we write, everything we buy, who our friends are, how much money we owe, what medical problems we have, what drugs we take, what sex turns us on, what kind of parents we are to our kids . . .

You’ve probably had the kind of nightmare I’m talking about where you’re revulsed but you can’t look away, where you try to run but your legs won’t move, where you’re struggling to escape but you’re paralyzed.

In my nightmare, they say they need to manage their pipes to prevent network congestion. But then we discover that there’s no congestion, but they’ve already put their creepy middleware into the Internet. Then they say they want to pay authors and musicians fairly. So they put some creepy copyright catcher into the Internet. But then we discover they’re still not paying authors and musicians fairly. So then they say they need to do it to stop illegal drugs. So they install creepy spyware in the Internet. Then after years of no-knock raids, racist arrests, kangaroo courts and overflowing prisons, we show that they’ve failed to stop illegal drugs. And then they say they need to do it to stop terrorism . . .

In my nightmare, sometimes there’s a genuine emergency — a big storm or an earthquake or a pandemic or — amazingly infrequently — an attack on a city, but they choose to shut the Internet down — rather than open it up — and now people can’t call their loved ones, summon aid, find advice or figure out what’s going on except through official — and panic-clogged — channels.

In my nightmare, whatever the excuse — or the precipitating real-world event — once the Internet’s intermediaries know which apps generate which packets, they discover the information we value the most and start charging more for applications we value more.

In my nightmare, this becomes a form of blackmail, because if you tell, say, a bank, that there’s a secure transaction service, no matter how bogus, and it doesn’t use it, and there’s a security breach anywhere for any reason, the bank becomes liable because by not choosing the so-called “secure service,” it demonstrated that it did not take *all* the precautions that were available.

In my nightmare, some applications generate more revenues because they’re subject to management — and others don’t — and the managed applications get all the newest, shiniest, fastest network upgrades, while the newer, edgier, more experimental apps languish in what rapidly becomes Yesterday’s Network.

In my nightmare, new innovations that need the newest fastest network, but don’t yet have a revenue stream, are consigned to second class service. Or they’re subject to lengthy engineering studies and other barriers that keep them off the market. In other words, in my nightmare, all but the most mundane innovation dies.

In my nightmare, the Internet Search Company is NOT guided by a pole star named, “Don’t be evil.”

In my nightmare, the sons and daughters of yesterday’s power structure know if I like their war, if I agree with their energy policy, if I’ve detected that their cronies are on the take, and if I reject their version of the truth.

In my nightmare, they’ve discovered exactly when I’ll be at the supermarket. A car pulls up, and there’s a man holding each of my elbows . . . “come with us, sir, just a few routine questions” . . . I step into the car, I feel a prick in my arm and the world goes dark . . . and I wake up in an orange jumpsuit in a windowless room that is completely disconnected from the Internet, from geography, from information, from law, from time, from my wife, from everything that makes me human. I break into a cold sweat, I try to scream, I struggle to wake up . . .

Then I wake up.

OK … so which is it, Internet dream or Internet nightmare?

The reason I’m talking to you this morning is that I hope that you who are building new networks, and who are building your communities around them, will understand that broadband that does not connect to the Internet isn’t worth squat.

You can have a fast digital connection that’s not an Internet connection. It could be a backplane, or a specialized financial transaction network, or a cable TV system.

When I was at AT&T we tried desperately to sell digital services before the Internet got popular, services like switched digital lines and ISDN, and products like Datakit, and StarLan., but before the Internet nobody was buying!

Digital so-called broadband services only took off after the Internet became popular.

So, why was the Internet so miraculously successful, whereas all previous service models failed?

The answer is that the Internet was designed to be a Network of Networks. And the Internet became the miraculous value producer it did because it was a network of networks.

This is important: The Internet protocol is designed to ignore network-specific differences. It is designed to move data from any network to any other network from an x.25 network to an Ethernet, to a DSL connection, to a token ring network, to a StarLAN, to a switched data connection, to a SONET ring, to an ATM packet switch without any tweaks or engineering or interoperability testing.

The Internet Protocol was designed to ignore network-specific properties. If you implement the Internet Protocol according to the public specification that everybody has access to, and buy a connection to the Internet, it just works.

The spin-off of this one property is profound. It means that anybody at the edge of the Internet can put their application or service or content on the network. It also means that everybody on the Internet can access that application or service or content.

It also means that if you operate one of the Internet’s networks, it is futile (from an Internet perspective) to add value to your network specifically. The paradigmatic example comes from dial-up — the call waiting tone added value for a telephone company, but when were logged on to the Internet, call waiting was a pain in the asychronous connection.

The futility of adding value to one network is why only the simplest QOS has been implemented on the Internet. It is the reason why multicast isn’t used. The owner of a network has very little specific leverage on the end-user in the Internet’s Network-of-Networks world.

If the Internet consolidates and specializes and centralizes and monetizes, it won’t be the Internet anymore. It will be some alien network where we find out the weather, do our shopping and get the official version of the news. That’s why the work of the Broadband Communities Summit is important. You are building alternative networks that preserve the heterogeneity, the Network of Networks that is the Internet.

Let’s talk about adding value at the edge a bit more. Remember Napster? It was the first popular on-line music application. In its day, it had over 80 million registered users and accounted for 60% of the Internet traffic. It was vaguely illegal, and eventually it got sued out of existence. But it was the fore-runner of all the every-day ways we get music on line today.

When I was at Bell Labs, we had one of the first high quality, low bit rate music coders, we had the first solid-state music player, we had service models for digital music, but AT&T wanted to put on-line music in the middle of its own network. The real show-stopper, though, was that AT&T would never do anything that was quasi-legal. It had too much to lose. If the recording industry had sued AT&T, we’d be talking about big money. So AT&T never did it. It had to be done at the edge — by an edgy player like Napster. Then, once the trail was blazed, along came iTunes and Amazon and Pandora and Soundcloud and all the other ways we get on-line music

The music business is just one example of a business that needed the Internet to succeed. There are others — the picturephone was one. Do you know how many times telephone companies tried to invent the picturephone before the Internet?

Video on Demand was another — Last time I checked, Cableco video on demand was still struggling, but Netflix — which is implemented at the edge of the Internet — is doing fine, and Youtube accepts 100 hours of UPLOADS every minute.

This quasi-legal thing is a big deal. An amazing amount of social change is — or starts out as — quasi-legal activity. Civil rights. Gay rights. Marijuana. Martin Luther King is a hero today, right? He was jailed in 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1967. Nelson Mandela is a hero, right? He was in prison 27 years. If we want positive social change, we need an Internet that is tolerant of quasi-legal — or even illegal — activity at its edges.

Now let me be clear. I am not advocating for a network of crime. But I am saying that the Internet should be governed by an “Innocent until Proven Guilty” ethic — just like off-line society should be.

Consider the alternative — gate-keepers that pre-judge what’s allowed on the Internet. Unacceptable. If we fail to allow the users at the edge of the Internet — both the creators and the customers — if we don’t allow THEM to decide what succeeds and fails on the Internet, we will have lost the Internet.

If we allow powerful, consolidated companies like Comcast to put their own private tweaks on the public suite of Internet protocols, we risk losing the Internet. Usage caps and private deals are just the thin edge of the wedge.

When Comcast comes to your Community Broadband Network and says, “Let’s make a deal,” the deal may seem sweet, but the risk is that we lose the Internet.

If we lose the Internet, Community Broadband networks will be the biggest losers.

What can we do about that? That’s another talk. But in short, I believe that Network Neutrality was a symptom of the open Internet. Fighting for Network Neutrality is a good fight, but it is a mistake to think that it is an end in and of itself. It is a symptom of an open, heterogeneous Internet based on public protocols.

The root cause, the thing that made the Internet great, was that it was a network of networks. The best way to preserve that is to ensure — by law — that network operators have no motive to make private changes to the suite of Internet protocol within their own networks. The best way to do that is to make it illegal for network operators to have any financial interest in any of the content that travels on their networks.

This is called structural separation. It is the only long-term enforceable, sustainable way to save the Internet and to preserve our investments in Community Broadband Networks.

If we want the dream, we have to ensure that the Internet of tomorrow remains a network of heterogeneous networks. In the short-term, if we could stop with the “broadband, broadband, broadband” already and, instead, talk about Internet connections, it will help us build awareness of what’s really important.

Thank you!


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  1. Lindsey Annison says:

    As ever, right on the money, Mr Isenberg. It is the edgy development at the edge that makes life online so exciting, uncontrollable, and sexily scary. Well said, brilliant speech. Hope they cheered loudly in Austin 🙂

  2. Tim Scott says:

    It was excellent, great vision David. Keep bringing it every year as opposed to every few. Thanks