Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick Any Two

The title of this post is a slogan one of my fellow engineers at Texas Instruments had in his cubicle in the early 80s when we were developing the first network-based operating systems. Engineers understand that money doesn’t grow ion trees, the Tooth Fairy doesn’t leave it under your pillow, and that real stuff has to be paid for. It would be great if the laws of physics could be suspended and Our Internet could have all three virtues, but in the real world (the place where engineers are paid to make trade-offs) this isn’t going to happen. If you want your network to be fast and reliable, it’s going to be expensive; if you want it to be cheap, it has to be either slow or unreliable.

Two common networks make this trade in different ways: the telephone network is highly reliable and not very expensive, but it’s not fast. The packet network that we call the Internet is faster and more expensive than the telephone network, but it’s less reliable in the sense that it’s performance is more variable. Neither network is more virtuous than the other, they just make the trade-offs in ways that are appropriate to the ways the networks are used, to the kind of traffic they carry.

Our pals at Free Press, the organization that created Save the Internet and pays its employees, unveiled a new plan for the Internet at its annual conference this week. Free Press, by the way, is primarily concerned that deregulation of media ownership law a threat to our democracy, just as deregulation of Internet access networks is, you guessed it, a threat to our democracy.

Free Press’ plan for the Internet is couched as Declaration of Internet Freedoms and goes like this:

* Universal Affordable Access: Broadband Internet access should be universally available and affordable.

* An Open and Neutral Network: Access to broadband networks should be open to all producers and consumers of Internet content on fair and equal terms without discrimination.

* World Class Quality through Competition: America must build the world’s most advanced communications networks and maximize competition on those networks.

That sounds an awful lot like “Cheap, Good, and Fast: I want all three.”

I’m sorry, but that’s not how things work on the planet Earth. Upgrading the overall quality of our broadband networks is going to take a large infusion of cash, to the tune of several billion dollars. That money will be spent running fiber optic cables, buying routers to light the fiber, building network operations centers to spot and repair problems, upgrading routers inside homes and businesses, and purchasing long-haul fiber optic circuits. The Internet doesn’t generate enough carrier revenue to pay for this upgrade by itself, so the carriers will have to pay for it in no small part by selling the stuff that people are willing to pay for, television and phone service.

That’s the way we’ve always paid for infrastructure in the US, and it’s the way it’s paid for in other countries as well. You can get a raw connection rate of 100 megabits/second in Korea, but you can use any VoIP but the one provided by Korea Telecom. Similar rules pertain in the UK and in France. That’s a violation of network neutrality, but it takes place in the places Free Press touts as Model Nations.

The net result, pardon the pun, of the regulations proposed by Free Press on the American Internet access network can only be one thing: the network will never be substantially upgraded because there won’t be any money in it.

And that’s what happens when you go for Good, Fast AND Cheap: you got none of them.

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