Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Blair Levin perpetuates false distinction among IP-based services

Blair Levin, in another recent interview looking back on the U.S. National Broadband Plan he lead authored for the Federal Communications Commission before becoming an Aspen Institute fellow this summer, perpetuates a false distinction among Internet Protocol (IP)-based telecommunications services. IP-based services include Internet applications such as web browsing, email and e-commerce as well as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and video, also known as Internet Protocol TV (IPTV).

In an interview with Marguerite Reardon of cnet news, Levin does so by differentiating VOIP and IPTV from Internet applications. Levin -- as do many incumbent legacy phone and cable companies -- continues to describe the latter as "broadband." That term was appropriate in the mid-1990s when "broadband" denoted a premium service offered by telephone companies over their single purpose, proprietary copper cable plants. But as fiber optic cable technology increasingly obsoletes metal wire for delivering multiple IP-based services, the term is no longer relevant.

Levin reinforces this artificial split by talking about "broadband adoption." That too was relevant in the 1990s when broadband was being offered as a premium service, requiring customers to sign up for or "adopt" it. Today, it no longer is when Internet applications, voice and video can be delivered to consumers over a single fiber "pipe."

Further reinforcing the bogus notion of "broadband adoption," Levin elaborates that "broadband" requires consumers to be literate whereas voice and video do not. Therefore, Levin implies, we first need to improve the literacy of Americans to drive "broadband adoption" before the nation revamps its outmoded telecom infrastructure with fiber. Here's what he told Reardon:

Even though there are a lot of low-income people who may not be able to afford multi-channel video (cable TV), there is still a high proportion of people subscribing to the service. And people are not leaving in huge numbers. The big difference between TV and broadband is that to watch TV, you don't have to be literate. The same is true of phone service. You don't need to be literate to use a cell phone, so penetration of those services is higher. But to use broadband for things, such as getting access to public services, health care, job training, etc., a basic level of literacy is necessary. It requires a skill set. And teaching people those skills is a serious effort. So price is a piece of it, but literacy and relevance are also aspects too.

This is so much sophistry. Moreover, even if one accepts Levin's false dichotomy between Internet applications on one hand and voice and video on the other, it would argue for a bigger push to deploy fiber optic telecom infrastructure since video requires the "fat pipe" bandwidth fiber can provide.

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