Friday, November 11, 2005

Rail Roads versus Car Roads

Rail roads and car roads both represent infrastructure. But while the former are mostly privately owned, the latter are mainly public. Anyone with a car or bicycle can freely drive on public roads, the vast majority of which are paved.

Trains shaped America's 19th century economy. Cars did the same for the 20th century. As we embark on the 21st century, a challenging question is, should broadband information highways be private or public?

Currently, broadband access to the Internet is delivered for a monthly fee either by cable television providers or by public telephone carriers with DSL networks. But, wireless networks might potentially change the present market dynamics entirely.

On November 11, 2005, the Mercury News reported that Google wants to use the city of Mountain View, CA, home of its corporate headquarters, as a test ground to show that giving people wireless Internet connections on a large scale is a good idea socially and financially. They believe that "free (or very cheap) Internet access is a key to bridging the digital divide."

Imagine how much different our world would be if the road network we drive our cars on were privately owned and operated instead of being paid for by our taxes.

Telephones have never been public, except in the form of pay phones. But, historically, there was always a huge difference between roadways and telephone networks based on scarcity versus abundance.

Up until fairly recently, network bandwidth has been scarce. That resource had to be carefully managed. On the other hand, most roads most of the time have little if any traffic. (Note: Traffic jams, where road bandwidth is scarce, is the exception.)

By installing a network of WiFi transmitters atop a city's street-light poles, there'd be an abundance of bandwidth for wireless broadband connections to the Internet. As technology marches forward, the cost for such networks in the future is expected to continue to plummet while the abundance of bandwidth should continue to climb.

Free public roadways totally transformed our society. Imagine how free public Internet highways might someday completely reshape our children's world. This is an important debate. I'm grateful to Google for helping to get it started.


Blogger Matt said...

There's a difference, though. Roads built during the days when cars were a rare luxury for the very wealthy are still capable of carrying the most advanced cars we're capable of building today. From the perspective of a user of roads, road technology hasn't changed very much since Caesar's time. It's thus a pretty safe bet that a road built or repaired today will remain viable infrastructure for more than long enough to pay for it, as long as the cars of tomorrow still move along the ground.

Thing is, can't say that about wireless internet standards. It's quite likely that the current best-of-breed will be obsolete before a significant number of urban deployments could be completed.

Now, if Google wants to spend its money on gambling against that probability, then more power to them. It's a free country after all, and nobody's forcing anyone to give Google money.

But cities get all their money by force. (Seriously...would you pay your taxes if refusing to do so didn't mean being hauled off to jail by armed police officers?) That, to a reasonable person, will mandate a rather higher level of confidence in the soundness of any investment of said money in infrastructure projects.

7:40 AM  

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