By Tom Cushing
House of CablesUploaded: Feb 19, 2014
The new House of Cards series on Netflix has been a riveting experience on multiple levels. Don't worry, no spoilers here ? just to say that part of its fascination has been the Sopranos-like absence of any heroes, or practically anyone with any redeeming qualities at all. It's a dank, fantastical shadow world of naked, no-rules power that's just plausible enough that we fear it might be real. Unseen machinations control our daily routines in ways we could scarcely imagine if we wanted to, and we don't. Civics class was never like this, or we might've paid better attention.
The series also delivered to my house a demonstration of the mess that is our cable and broadband access system. It is way too slow, too complicated, too unreliable, and way (way) too expensive ? for reasons not unrelated to House of Cards-style shenanigans.
For example, I have taken a latter-day homesteader's pride in my ability overcome the many obstacles that seek to starve my eyes of Netflix. I have a broadband wireless router at one end of the house, a separate extender to reach the TV at t'other end, a blu-ray player/receiver, a port to receive its signal among a dozen TV source settings, and an array of remotes designed for a Mensan's smarter sibling. These were each installed and activated in protracted episodes of extreme frustration, abetted by the best tech-service minds of the Asian subcontinent ? and each is protected by codes longer than ? well, they're long.
Calling myself an internet frontiersman, I have scurried about to set-up this rube-goldbergian sequence to bring-in House of Cards (HoC), hopeful of winning the admiration of My Beloved. Except that then I get confronted with an interminable loading delay, punctuated by warnings that my system sucks and will probably barely trickle, much less stream the desired content. The popcorn starts getting stale. My Beloved wonders aloud who won ice dancing. And I finally ask myself: why do I put up with this crap from my TV?
In the rest of the First World, HoC would come rocketing into my living room, and bedroom, and laptop, phone and iPad, in several languages and at the touch of a button. The USA's internet access is half as fast as Korea's, and it is fully four times as expensive as faster service in France (France?!? Yes, France! THAT France ? the one that takes-off All of August for les vacances, to drink fine wine and watch le TV).
Okay, so how'd that happen? First, we need to understand that cable and broadband access in this country are tightly linked, and that cable is dead. The future of bundled TV services is, shall we say: exfinite, meaning that it's going the way of rabbit-ears and land-line telephones. If you are my age, your offspring are already getting their TV directly from the web, most likely via their wireless phones. And you and I are dinosaurs; plant-eating reptiles ? meals-in-waiting for our cable providers.
As an extended aside, that's why the cable aspects of the proposed merger between rapacious raptors Comcast and Time Warner Cable really doesn't matter much, price-wise. Those two leviathans do not hunt geographically for the same customer prey, so they will not be eliminating competition that never was. Now, they will wield more discount-demanding power "vertically" against their suppliers of content, like NetFlix, and did I mention that they already own NBC and Universal? But they can be counted-on not to pass-along those savings to us fern eaters, so we're not likely to notice the change during our sorry lifetimes.
There's even a pretty good argument to be made, for the medium-range reality, that having a dominant cable player is a good thing, in case the future is wireless. If there is a trend toward getting our signals to our TVs and computers the way we get them to our phones, then having a strong hard-wire alternative will exercise some price discipline on those more evolved telecomm predators.
And probably the best argument to allow the Comcast combination is that there is so much creative destruction in tech markets that we just can't see the future. That implies that we really ought to temper any consumerist regulatory zeal with a large dose of humility. Ten years ago, after all, Microsoft was all set to rule the world, and before that AOL was the unstoppable "It" company of the proto-web 1.0.
So, after that digression, what IS the Real problem? It is this: the Real future is fiber optics cable, not copper (phone) or coaxial (cable). So-called FiOS is what they've already installed in Korea, and France, that allows the next quantum leaps in data speed and volume. FiOS is contemporary commercial and entertainment infrastructure at least as crucial as highways and bridges, and necessary to work in conjunction with schools. Unfortunately, the entrenched cable and broadband interests are fighting it like Francis Underwood attacking a plate of ribs.
Who, one might ask, chairs the FCC, the agency with primary regulatory authority over these matters? Why, Tom Wheeler, recent former head of the cable industry's primary lobbying association. Who bundled $1.2 million for the Democratic candidates, including a fund-raising dinner in Philadelphia? Ten points if you answered David Cohen, Comcast's chief lobbyist. And who had the Prez over to his humble compound on The Vineyard (Martha's) for a cook-out? That would be Brian Roberts, CEO of ? wait for it ? Comcast. Uh-oh.
Further, much of the FiOS distribution system energy percolates at the state and local levels, in places long under the thrall of cable operators who enjoy having the field essentially to themselves (and because they are so competitively lonesome, they have correspondingly little incentive to innovate). Some municipalities have sought to finance and build their own FiOS networks to serve their citizens, much like roads, water and sewer services.
So guess who pushed through legislation in Colorado (and similarly in twelve other states) to prohibit or hamstring that process? The Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association is who. And by now it won't surprise you that they also opposed Longmont, CO's several referenda to sell bonds and finance a local FiOS system, to the tune of $225,000. In that case, they hinted darkly that 'foreign interests' were behind the plan, in a tactic worthy of HoC arch-villain Raymond Tusk (which is saying something). Nor will you be amazed to learn that cable money: helped defeat a similar plan in Minnesota, and the incumbent Mayor of Seattle who backed FiOS, and underwrote an unsuccessful lawsuit against such a network in Tennessee. The Fix is in, in every way except the one that improves my access to the web. Worse, it is financed in part by my own cable bill, and yours.
In a larger sense, American internet infrastructure ? both its cost and its speed ? will continue to lag the rest of the organized world until we come to grips with how to fix it. That process starts with defining the kind of thing that it is: is it a "public good" like an Interstate highway or the radio spectrum, a "natural monopoly" like a public utility, or just another private commodity? We have treated it, by default, as just a commodity, with the resulting pokey speeds at ruinous expense.
A natural monopoly characterization would allow regulation that is theoretically in the public interest, but is anyone who's familiar with history or our local public utilities really pleased with those outcomes? Does the term "regulatory capture" ring a bell (as it does in San Bruno, Hinkley and elsewhere)?
This situation does require that government define the internet infrastructure as a matter shot through-and-through with the public interest ? it is as aligned with the nation's future interests as its highways, ports, or the electric grid. We can then choose from among a variety of public and/or private options to promote the public's ends (perhaps another blog topic). This massive upgrade needs to be an urgent public priority, as well. The form and pace of that upgrade must also be determined in public, and in the public interest. It should not be determined in the tangled wiring of current cable politics, or in backrooms, or boardrooms, or on Martha's Vineyard.