1990’s Net Neutrality Internet History Revealed

Standards Trolls:
Re: net neutrality

1990’s Net Neutrality Internet History Revealed

[ USA, has “suspended” net neutrality for years for its institutions. Now, they may go back to standard net neutrality, or not!
Today USA, tomorrow Turkey, China, Russia, England, France …]



From: John Gilmore
Date: January 4, 2021

It turns out that your concrete example is based on sand.

The USA never had “network neutrality” before it was “suspended”. What the USA had was 3,000 ISPs. So if an ISP did something unfriendly to its customers, they could just stop paying the bad one, and sign up with a different ISP that wouldn’t screw them. That effectively prevented bad behavior among ISPs. And if the customer couldn’t find an ISP that wouldn’t screw them, they could START ONE THEMSELVES. I know, because we did exactly that in the 1990s.

Anyone could start an ISP because by law, everyone had tariffed access to the same telco infrastructure (dialup phone lines, and leased lines at 56 kbit/sec or 1.544 Mbit/sec or 45 Mbit/sec). You just called up the telco and ordered it, and they sent out techs and installed it. We did exactly that, plugged it into our modems and routers and bam, we were an ISP: “The Little Garden”.

Later, DSL lines required installing equipment in telco central offices, at the far end of the wire that leads to your house. But the telcos were required by the FCC to allow competing companies to do that. Their central office buildings were 9/10th empty anyway, after they had
replaced racks of mechanical relays with digital computers.

The telcos figured this out, and decided they’d rather be gatekeepers, instead of being the regulated monopoly that gets a fixed profit margin. Looking ahead, they formally asked the FCC to change its rule that telcos had to share their infrastructure with everybody — but only for futuristic optical fibers. They whined that “FCC wants us to deploy
fiber everywhere, but we won’t, unless we get to own it and not share it with our competitors.” As usual, the regulated monopoly was great at manipulating the public interest regulators. The FCC said, “Sure, keep your fibers unshared.” This ruling never even mentioned the Internet, it is all about the physical infrastructure. If the physical stuff is wires, regulated telcos have to share it; if it’s glass, they don’t.

The speed of dialup maxed out at 56 kbit/sec. DSL maxed out at a couple of megabits. Leased lines worked to 45 Mbit/sec but cost thousands of dollars per month. Anything over that speed required fiber, not wire,at typical distances. As demand for higher Internet speeds arose, any ISP who wanted to offer a faster connection couldn’t just order one from the telco, because the telco fibers were now private and unshared. If
you want a fiber-based Internet connection now, you can’t buy it from anybody except the guys who own the fibers — mostly the telcos. Most of the 3,000 ISPs could only offer slow Internet access, so everybody stopped paying them. The industry consolidated down to just one or a few businesses per region — mostly the telcos themselves, plus the cable companies that had build their own local monopoly via city
government contracts. Especially lucky regions had maybe one other competitor, like a Wireless ISP, or an electrical co-op that ran fibers on its infrastructure.

So now if your ISP becomes nasty to you, censoring your traffic or slowing it down for their own benefit, you have nowhere else you could buy Internet service from. You can pay a cable company to screw you, or pay a telco to screw you. What held them back in the ’90s was that anybody could start honest competition. They manipulated the regulators to mostly prevent competition in high speed Internet. So now they can do what more or less what they want, or what they think they can get away with. (For example, I once got AT&T fiber installed to my house; their required gateway box refused to pass my traffic unless I click-signed a contract of adhesion that was hundreds of pages that it wouldn’t even let me read. I read enough of the few accessible pages to
know that it let AT&T screw me and my Internet traffic about seven different ways. I refused to sign it and had them take out the fiber.)

The telcos’ elimination of fiber based competition, and nothing else, was the end of so-called “network neutrality”. The rest was just activists, regulators and legislators blathering. There never was an enforceable federal regulatory policy of network neutrality, so the FCC could hardly suspend it. If the FCC actually wanted US customers to have a choice of ISPs, they would rescind the FIBER RULE. And if advocates actually understood how only competition, not regulation,
restrains predatory behavior, they would ask FCC for the fiber rule to be rescinded, so a small ISP company could rent the actual glass fiber that runs from the telco to (near or inside) your house, for the actual cost plus a regulated profit. Then customers could get high speed Internet from a variety of vendors at a variety of prices and terms. So far neither has happened.


The ONLY reason the Internet exists as we know it

From: Thomas Leavitt

The ONLY reason the Internet exists as we know it (mass consumer access) was the regulatory loophole which permitted the ISP industry to flourish in the 1990s. The telcos realized their mistake, as John said, and made sure that there wasn’t going to be a repeat of that, so with each generation (DSL, fiber), they made it more and more difficult to access their networks, with the result that John mention–almost no consumer choice, for consumers or business. Last office I rented, there was one choice of Internet provider: the local cable monopoly, which arbitrarily wanted to charge me much more ($85/mo) to connect my office than it did the apartments upstairs in the same building ($49). As is the case in most of that county; the only alternatives were a few buildings and complexes wired up by the two surviving local ISPs, and a relatively expensive WISP.

I eventually convinced the building owner to let the one of the two surviving local ISPs (which had partnered with the local university to bring fiber to the county) to wire up the building via high speed PtP wireless ($49/mo. for business and residential, no bandwidth caps, etc. — competition, what a concept?), but in the meantime, I’d figured out that I could live with tethering through my cellphone, as I have a legacy (from the 3G days) $25/mo. unlimited tethering feature and 30-40 mbps was adequate enough for a single person office.

It’s ridiculous that it is going to take sending 10s of thousands of satellites into orbit to restore any semblance of competitiveness to the ISP market, when we’ve had a simple regulatory fix all along. It’s not like the telco/cable monopolies suffered as a result of competition… in fact, it created the market they now monopolize. Imagine all the other opportunities for new markets that have been stifled by the lack of competition in the ISP market over the last two decades!

Thomas Leavitt

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