Bradner's column: A waste of good brainpower

I've noticed a disturbing trend: the emergence of papers by scholars who think they know more about how the Internet works than they actually do.

For example, The Virginia Journal of Law and Technology just published an article by Rob Frieden titled "Without Public Peer: The Potential Regulatory and Universal Service Consequences of Internet Balkanization" (http://vjolt.student.virginia.edu/graphics/vol3/home_art8.html). As far as I can tell, Professor Frieden's assumptions of Internet structure are wrong and negatively impact the usefulness of his conclusions.

The article looks at an important issue, the application of the universal service fund (USF) on the Internet.

Reality sometimes hurts. For example, goods and services don't cost the same everywhere. Electric power is more expensive in Boston than it is in Seattle. Gasoline is more expensive in Hawaii than it is in Texas. For most people, these are facts of life. We evaluate the various features of living some place and decide where to live based on our priorities.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, may not be the best place to live if I wanted to raise emus, but it is quite convenient because I work at Harvard.

This same type of disparity used to be present in telephone service because of the higher cost of wiring up customers in areas of low population density.

But since the establishment of the USF, costs to the consumer have been artificially levelled by taxing telephone customers in low-cost areas and using the funds to subsidise customers in high-cost areas.

Enter the Internet. The movement of telephone and telephone-like services to the Net means that regulators are starting to ask if Net customers should also be charged the USF tax. Some people are asking if Internet costs should also be artificially levelled using the USF because the Net is becoming so important.

There are real questions, and we will need answers soon. Scholarly papers on these topics are beginning to appear - unfortunately many of them, such as Frieden's, demonstrate an impressive lack of understanding of the current Internet world and thus waste the brainpower of their authors.

The misunderstandings range from not knowing that most ISPs (Internet service providors) have always been paying customers of other ISPs to not understanding how peering points such as MAE-East are run. Based on these flawed understandings, Frieden finds that the interconnection structure of the Internet is changing for the worse and implies that something should be done, such as mandating requirements for ISPs to interconnect. He then discusses some Federal Communications Commission rulings and finishes the article by arguing that ISPs should be required to pay into the USF, without actually saying so.

This is clearly a thoughtful article. Unfortunately it's not based on reality. When people such as Frieden are able to get a better understanding of the real world, these articles will become relevant, and that will be very useful.

Disclaimer: Harvard thinks it deals with reality, as do I, and the above is a reflection of my understanding.

Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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