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Universal Business Access to the Internet

by Kent M. Pitman (Monday, May 26, 2008)

Refining the notion of Universal Access to the Internet

A great deal of noise has been made about the the notion of Universal Access to the Internet but I'd like to see that terminology refined a bit.

Usually what is implied by this is the need of individual citizens to participate on the Internet in a basic number of ways, such as access to a web browser and access to email (sometimes through their web browser, sometimes through other means). Most people having that degree of capability can participate in a large number of online activities.

But there is another kind of access that I think has not been looked at quite so carefully, and that's establishing a baseline of access for small companies to participate in the marketplace.

The Issue of Verticality, and the Browser Wars

Let's look for a moment at how this issue played out on the desktop.

Microsoft made a computer operating system called Windows that was in competition with other operating systems as a platform for the writing of desktop applications. Through whatever means (some think it was more appropriate than others, but it's not relevant here), they achieved marketplace dominance (or some would say monopoly).

Then later there was a competition for products written on the Windows desktop, which we call a vertical market because it relies on the use and continued success of the underlying platform. Windows bundled its Internet Explorer in with Windows and it was alleged that it could control the browser market by manipulating the details of the support offered for browsers, both in terms of technical details and market positioning, such that its Internet Explorer had what was alleged to be an unfair advantage.

To understand this paradigm it is not necessary to agree that the claims made against Microsoft were valid, it's only necessary to understand the basic paradigm under which such a claim could have been valid so that such a paradigm can be recognized in another context.

For example, if there were competition for a set of highways and for whatever reason my company achieved dominance over those highways such that everyone pretty much always used my highways and no one else wanted to build or maintain highways, and then my company entered the trucking business and started to succeed better because my company's vehicles weren't stopped for tolls while everyone else's were, that would be a similar kind of issue. Clearly, a healthy market in trucking relies on the notion that no one's trucks get favored treatment over anyone else's for reasons that amount to nothing more than a bias toward success in some other market.

For more information on this, there are any number of write-ups by business analysts available on the web. One example would be:

Verticality of the ISP Market and the Web Hosting Market

It seems to me that a similar phenomenon has been happening in the Internet access space. In our zeal to have everyone have personal Internet access, companies offering such access have taken subtle steps to make it hard for businesses to grow up using that access in ways that might compete with them. In effect, as more and more people have gotten personal access, it has been harder and harder for businesses to compete.

Here are some examples of features that are needed by businesses that are not available in an open and uniform way. Each broadband service provider makes up its own rules:

Broadband providers have created subtle roadblocks to access to the information superhighway. The rationale, as far as I can tell, is that they themselves want to sell layered services (for example, web hosting and email), so they have each made certain key things hard to get. But the net result, if you'll pardon the pun, is that a business wanting a particular feature to be used for business cannot rely on obtaining it from multiple broadband service providers, hence the competitive forces of the market are not in play. And, if they want multiple such features, there may be no way to obtain that combination from any vendor, so in that case there is not any source of direct broadband access with the desired features at all.

What I Want (and What I Think is Fair)

In the real world, if I bought a piece of land, I could build my business on it as I please. Driving out onto the highway would not require me to sign terms of service or to only have a certain number of people visit that business. The burden of proof would not be for me to show that the things I wanted to do were really necessary to my business, but rather for the government or the maintainers of the roads to show why I should not be allowed to use my property as I felt appropriate. As a consequence of those freedoms, I would have the flexibility to experiment with what I want to make, even to make something new that others don't do with their business, in short, to innovate.

The writers of regulations need to acknowledge the quite obvious fact that the needs of new business entrants are not necessarily identical to the needs of end-user consumers nor of established businesses. Equal access to a wide variety of capabilities is necessary for the network to remain an incubator of new concepts and not just to become a streamlined way to deliver commodity items well-understood and tightly controlled by the same companies that already own the network backbone (the cables and switching systems that tie the core of the Internet together nationwide, and worldwide).

The requirements of internet access for businesses and for end-user consumers are not the same, and it is a mistake to assume that the regulations targeted at one are suitable to the other.

The requirements of established business are merely those required to consolidate market share and lock out entrants that might disrupt the shape of the market. The requirements of new businesses are often quite different than that.

Universal Business Access to the Internet is a concept that requires careful study independent of Universal Personal Access to the Internet. Achieving universal business access requires more than merely making sure the network reaches all businesses and requires more than making sure that all businesses are allowed to buy Internet services in packaged form from the same businesses that maintain the Internet backbone.

Universal Business Access should be a first-class priority of any serious policy regulating the Internet. It deserves explicit public discussion, and a formal commitment from politicians independent of the question of Universal Personal Access.

Copyright © 2009 by Kent M Pitman. All Rights Reserved.

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