Save our Internet before we go off the digital cliff

Broadband and cellular carriers are threatening the viability of the digital services Silicon Valley keeps inventing

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It's easy to blame the carriers -- they are largely the problem. They make way too much profit compared to most other businesses, and they deliver terrible service. It's no wonder they usually crowd the annual lists of most disliked companies.

What they're doing is making the Internet unaffordable and inconsistently available when it needs to be affordable and consistently available to deliver on its promise -- and for all those digital services we use to function. We already pay enough money for the Internet services to make it broadly accessible, even in the far-flung corners of America. However, that money ends up not in the service but in the pockets of investors and executives (not employees). I'm all for making money, but the telecom industry's profit expectations are so out of scale of business in general that, like Wall Street, it's crossed way over the line.

The Internet is a public necessity these days, at least in developed countries. And public necessities are expected to accept lower profits for the public good, in return for getting monopolies to ensure steady income. Somehow, fixed-broadband Internet providers have managed to retain some of the highest profit margins while maintaining monopoly status in most places. (OK, duopoly status: one cable provider and one old-fashioned landline provider.)

The economics of building new parallel networks for competitors is impossible, and after failed attempts to get alternative energy providers to share transmission systems in some states, fixed-broadband service is unlikely to try the same -- these monopolies are likely here to stay. As such, they need more aggressive regulation and a cap on profits, as the United States recently imposed on health insurance providers to bring some sensible economics back to the health care system and make sure our health care spending mainly goes to, of all things, health care. Likewise, our Internet dollars should actually go mainly to the Internet.

The situation for cellular carriers in the United States, as in most countries, isn't quite as dire, with usually three to five providers per market (though the number has been worryingly shrinking). It masks the fact that the spectrum they get is typically unevenly allocated; one or two carriers tends to dominate each geographic area, which is why coverage is so variable. They need to be forced to share the spectrum based on actual usage, and the spectrum must be a common conduit for all providers, not hacked up as today.

To do that, our multiple frequency bands and incompatible technologies (purposely implemented to prevent sharing) need to be rationalized. The move to LTE was the perfect opportunity to end that growing fragmentation, but instead we're getting more bands divvied up among carriers. It's so bad that companies like Apple can no longer develop one smartphone to work across all carriers using the same radio technology in a country like the United States. Google kept LTE out of its Nexus 4 because of this issue.

I'm sure I've made economic liberals and corporate apologists see red. But the truth is that the Internet is a public good -- indeed, a public necessity -- that is being abused by profiteers. Through their greed, they're driving us off the Internet cliff. They're debasing the platform that will make our technology visions possible, putting all that wondrous capability at risk. Something has to change.

This article, "Save our Internet before we go off the digital cliff," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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