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Monthly Archives: October 2009

How Monticello, Minn got fast and cheap internet before most of the U.S.

While many countries continue to roll out faster and cheaper broadband, the U.S. remains locked in simply how to define broadband. For all our claims of technological superiority, our country is falling behind.  So how did Monticello, Minn, a town of less than 12,000, get some of the fastest and cheapest internet service in the country?

They tried to build it themselves.

In 2007, Monticello tried to build its own fiber-optic network recognizing that no business was going to using city bonds to fund the project. The local teleco, TDS Telecommunications, sued. And it sued over and over again up to the Minnesota Supreme Court claiming the town could only use bond money for specific reasons, like building utilities. The courts ruled the internet is a utility and the town could build its own.

Now TDS has launched 50Mbps fiber service to every home costing a fair $49.95.

TDS originally claimed it did not believe there was demand for faster speeds until after the town passed its referendum, but that does not explain why the company sued to the city rather than compete with its lead in the market.  But as we’re seeing around the country, lack of competition among internet service providers is costing Americans money for poor service.

Lafeyette, Louisiana launched its own fiber optic network and states they have saved their citizens $3 million because local cable provider Cox has not raised its prices even while raising them everywhere else.

Hopefully these examples will be a call to arms for local governments to recognize that their local cable and telecommunications provider is unlikely to improve their service (they’ve had more than a decade) even though prices keep rising.  These companies have had monopolies on their areas, and the lack of competition is costing us money while the rest of the world speeds past us.

The U.S. ranks 20th in the world for broadband penetration and pays higher prices for slower speeds.

One business dying does not end an industry

CDs are dying, but the music industry is growing. Newspapers are dying, but journalism is thriving. DVD sales are dropping, but movie attendance is rising. Yet for all this, article after article says the music, news, and movie industry is dead or dying.

These industries are only dying if you classify them in ultra-specific and limiting businesses. CDs drop, but the music industry is selling more concert tickets and merchandise. The U.K. music industry’s own study (pdf) shows the music business overall has increased even though sales of record music has plummeted.  Even as newspapers suffer, hundreds of new journalism organizations are popping up producing original news, commentary, and fact-checking, all for a fraction of the cost, manpower, and time it takes traditional newspapers. And does everyone forget television news continues to grow in audience and revenue (well, at least cable news). And movies, well, attendance is up even in a down economy.

Technology and societal changes often causes radical shifts in how businesses do business. The death of selling plastic discs and packets of paper is, yes, dying, and for the time, these were the most effective ways to make money. With better computers and distribution channels, it is incredibly cheaper to make and distribute movies, music, and news articles.  This means more money to do other things. Or better, cheaper costs to consumers leading to a larger market – and then more fans to sell more stuff to.

The movie and music industries particularly have enjoyed monopoly pricing on their products, and without competition, fans paid the high prices. But competition from technology, even when used illegally, is forcing prices down. Originally, plastic discs were a scarce good the content industry could control, but the digital files on the discs are infinite goods now available free online no matter what.

Let’s remember, selling plastic discs (or records) for music is really only about 60-70 years old. Movies only entered home collections in the 1980s (and followed a significant legal battle where the movie industry claimed home video would destroy them). These industries made tons of money before and they can make even more money now by evolving their business models – recognizing they are in the music or movie or news industry, not just in the sell-discs-and-paper industry.

Researchers verify you can’t stop file-sharing

A paper from New York University researchers analyzes the methods used by the content industry to annoy and stop file-sharing on BitTorrent networks.  They found the practices of MediaDefender and other organizations presented no more than a nuisance to downloaders despite costing the content industry millions of dollars.

Prithula Dhungel, Di Wub and Keith Ross reviewed two specific methods use to slow down BitTorrent downloads. The first called “piece attack” involves trying to upload as many failed connections or hash fails as possible. Second, there is the “connection attack” where TCP connections are blocked preventing downloaders from accessing the actual content.  The researchers found these methods did slow download speeds, but not enough to deter downloading. Additionally, blocklists which can be easily found online increased speeds by 30-35 percent.  BitTorrent client uTorrent only encountered hostile connections 2 percent of the time while Azureus had only 18 percent.

Emails from a few years ago estimate that music companies pay up to $4,000 for each month of MediaDefender protecting one album.  As many already suspected, this money is likely being flushed down the digital drain.  Downloaders are not being deterred and certainly not being encouraged to buy content in another way.  The content industry is spending massive sums of money to fight against consumers preferred method of distribution. The ethics of file-sharing are not the point – basic economics, as always, is. Consumers by the millions are using file-sharing networks to find the content they want and share that content with other people. This is a good thing that should be embraced, not fought.  As we’ve seen, embracing new technology increases the size of your market and the money you can make, not decreases.

Fighting technology: A history of futility

Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson has written an excellent history of how the content industry has fought against pretty much every technological advancement over the past 100 years for fear it would end creative expression forever. As we know this isn’t true. Rather, technology helps increase the market for these creative works (and other industries) by decreasing costs and increasing efficiency. It is much cheaper and easier to create and distribute music than it was 10 years ago, let alone 100 years ago.

Anderson profiles the content industry’s fight against the gramophone and player piano. John Philip Sousa campaigned to Congress to ban these evil machines for replacing live performances, not recognizing that home recordings might increase the demand for those live performances. This gave birth to the compulsory license system, where the government set rates sheet music must pay to songwriters, we have still to this day, though it has been vastly expanded.

Photocopiers spelled doom for the print industry, with UCLA law professor Melville Nimmer saying “the day may not be far off when no one need purchase books.” While the U.S. and its courts upheld a fair use right to copying, Canada and other countries must pay royalties to collection agencies for every copy. Canada pays the same tax on rewritable CDs and iPods because they might be used for pirated content.

Movie companies famously referred to the VCR as the “Boston strangler” as it killed the movie industry. Universal sued Sony over Betamax all the way to the Supreme Court to ban the use of home recording. Once found legal, movie companies decided to sell copies of their own movies to home viewers, a revolutionary practice that led to the multi-billion dollar home video and rental market.

Pretty much every expansion into digital media has been fought tooth-and-nail by the content industry, from Napster to DVR to the iPod.

Anderson also left out some other highlights. Cable TV, when originally introduced, featured almost exclusively pirated content from network television. This allowed cable television to expand far enough that it could afford its own programming. Even the movie industry began by fleeing New York to Hollywood to escape enforcement of Thomas Edison’s patents and the high prices he charged to anyone wanting to make movies.

Presently, the DMCA makes sure technological innovations are few and far between to help the content industry.  While CDs were released without DRM and thus able to be ripped onto computers and people’s iPods, DVDs are copy-protected and thus illegal to copy in anyway. Even though it is easy to do so, no software or hardware can be released that can take advantage of people’s massive DVD collections.  Even though the content industry claims it would never sue to ban innovation, the industry has done so several times, and won these cases, holding back technology and innovation that consumers want and could do more to help expand the content market.