May 25, 2017

Does Your House Need a Tail?

Thus far, the debate over broadband deployment has generally been between those who believe that private telecom incumbents should be in charge of planning, financing and building next-generation broadband infrastructure, and those who advocate a larger role for government in the deployment of broadband infrastructure. These proposals include municipal-owned networks and a variety of subsidies and mandates at the federal level for incumbents to deploy faster broadband.

Tim Wu and Derek Slater have a great new paper out that approaches the problem from a different perspective: that broadband deployments could be planned and financed not by government or private industry, but by consumers themselves. That might sound like a crazy idea at first blush, but Wu and Slater do a great job of explaining how it might work. The key idea is “condominium fiber,” an arrangement in which a number of neighboring households pool their resources to install fiber to all the homes in their neighborhoods. Once constructed, each home would own its own fiber strand, while the shared costs of maintaining the “trunk” cable from the individual homes to a central switching location would be managed in the same way that condominium and homeowners’ associations currently manage the shared areas of condos and gated communities. Indeed, in many cases the developer of a new condominium tower or planned community could lay fiber along with water and power lines, and the fiber would be just one of the shared resources that would be managed collectively by the homeowners.

If that sounds strange, it’s important to remember that there are plenty of examples where things that were formerly rented became owned. For example, fifty years ago in the United States no one owned a telephone. The phone was owned by Ma Bell and if yours broke they’d come and install a new one. But that changed, and now people own their phones and the wiring inside their homes, with your phone company owning the cable outside the home. One way to think about Slater and Wu’s “homes with tails” concept is that it’s just shifting that line of demarcation again. Under their proposal, you’d own the wiring inside your home and the line from you to your broadband provider.

Why would someone want to do such a thing? The biggest advantage, from my perspective, is that it could solve the thorny problem of limited competition in the “last mile” of broadband deployment. Right now, most customers have two options for high-speed Internet access. Getting more options using the traditional, centralized investment model is going to be extremely difficult because it costs a lot to deploy new infrastructure all the way to customers’ homes. But if customers “brought their own” fiber, then the barrier to entry would be much lower. New providers would simply need to bring a single strand of fiber to a neighborhood’s centralized point of presence in order to offer service to all customers in that neighborhood. So it would be much easier to imagine a world in which customers had numerous options to choose from.

The challenge is solving the chicken-and-egg problem: customer owned fiber won’t be attractive until there are several providers to choose from, but it doesn’t make sense for new firms to enter this market until there are a significant number of neighborhoods with customer-owned fiber. Wu and Slater suggest several ways this chicken-and-egg problem might be overcome, but I think it will remain a formidable challenge. My guess is that at least at the outset, the customer-owned model will work best in new residential construction projects, where the costs of deploying fiber will be very low (because they’ll already be digging trenches for power and water).

But the beauty of their model is that unlike a lot of other plans to encourage broadband deployment, this isn’t an all-or-nothing choice. We don’t have to convince an entire nation, state, or even city to sign onto a concept like this. All you need is a neighborhood with a few dozen early-adopting consumers and an ISP willing to serve them. Virtually every cutting-edge technology is taken up by a small number of early adopters (who pay high prices for the privilege of being the first with a new technology) before it spreads to the general public, and the same model is likely to apply to customer-owned fiber. If the concept is viable, someone will figure out how to make it work, and their example will be duplicated elsewhere. So I don’t know if customer-owned fiber is the wave of the future, but I do hope that people start experimenting with it.

You can check out their paper here. You can also check out an article I wrote for Ars Technica this summer that is based on conversations with Slater, Wu, and other pioneers in this area.

Newspapers' Problem: Trouble Targeting Ads

Richard Posner has written a characteristically thoughtful blog entry about the uncertain future of newspapers. He renders widespread journalistic concern about the unwieldy character of newspapers into the crisp economic language of “bundling”:

Bundling is efficient if the cost to the consumer of the bundled products that he doesn’t want is less than the cost saving from bundling. A particular newspaper reader might want just the sports section and the classified ads, but if for example delivery costs are high, the price of separate sports and classified-ad “newspapers” might exceed that of a newspaper that contained both those and other sections as well, even though this reader was not interested in the other sections.

With the Internet’s dramatic reductions in distribution costs, the gains from bundling are decreased, and readers are less likely to prefer bundled products. I agree with Posner that this is an important insight about the behavior of readers, but would argue that reader behavior is only a secondary problem for newspapers. The product that newspaper publishers sell—the dominant source of their revenues—is not newspapers, but audiences.

Toward the end of his post, Posner acknowledges that papers have trouble selling ads because it has gotten easier to reach niche audiences. That seems to me to be the real story: Even if newspapers had undiminished audiences today, they’d still be struggling because, on a per capita basis, they are a much clumsier way of reaching readers. There are some populations, such as the elderly and people who are too poor to get online, who may be reachable through newspapers and unreachable through online ads. But the fact that today’s elderly are disproportionately offline is an artifact of the Internet’s novelty (they didn’t grow up with it), not a persistent feature of the marektplace. Posner acknoweldges that the preference of today’s young for online sources “will not change as they get older,” but goes on to suggest incongruously that printed papers might plausibly survive as “a retirement service, like Elderhostel.” I’m currently 26, and if I make it to 80, I very strongly doubt I’ll be subscribing to printed papers. More to the point, my increasing age over time doesn’t imply a growing preference for print; if anything, age is anticorrelated with change in one’s daily habits.

As for the claim that poor or disadvantaged communities are more easily reached offline than on, it still faces the objection that television is a much more efficient way of reaching large audiences than newsprint. There’s also the question of how much revenue can realistically be generated by building an audience of people defined by their relatively low level of purchasing power. If newsprint does survive at all, I might expect to see it as a nonprofit service directed at the least advantaged. Then again, if C. K. Prahalad is correct that businesses have neglected a “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” that can be gathered by aggregating the small purchases of large numbers of poor people, we may yet see papers survive in the developing world. The greater relative importance of cell phones there, as opposed to larger screens, could augur favorably for the survival of newsprint. But phones in the developing world are advancing quickly, and may yet emerge as a better-than-newsprint way of reading the news.

Copyright, Technology, and Access to the Law

James Grimmelmann has an interesting new essay, “Copyright, Technology, and Access to the Law,” on the challenges of ensuring that the public has effective knowledge of the laws. This might sound like an easy problem, but Grimmelmann combines history and explanation to show why it can be difficult. The law – which includes both legislators’ statutes and judges’ decisions – is large, complex, and ever-changing.

Suppose I gave you a big stack of paper containing all of the laws ever passed by Congress (and signed by the President). This wouldn’t be very useful, if what you wanted was to know whether some action you were contemplating would violate the law. How would you find the laws bearing on that action? And if you did find such a law, how would you determine whether it had been repealed or amended later, or how courts had interpreted it?

Making the law accessible in practice, and not just in theory, requires a lot of work. You need reliable summaries, topic-based indices, reverse-citation indices (to help you find later documents that might affect the meaning of earlier ones), and so on. In the old days of paper media, all of this had to be printed and distributed in large books, and updated editions had to be published regularly. How to make this happen was an interesting public policy problem.

The traditional answer has been copyright. Generally, the laws themselves (statutes and court opinions) are not copyrightable, but extra-value content such as summaries and indices can be copyrighted. The usual theory of copyright applies: give the creators of extra-value content some exclusive rights, and the profit motive will ensure that good content is created.

This has some similarity to our Princeton model for government transparency, which urges government to publish information in simple open formats, and leave it to private parties to organize and present the information to the public. Here government was creating the basic information (statutes and court opinions) and private parties were adding value. It wasn’t exactly our model, as government was not taking care to publish information in the form that best facilitated private re-use, but it was at least evidence for our assertion that, given data, private parties will step in and add value.

All of this changed with the advent of computers and the Internet, which made many of the previously difficult steps cheaper and easier. For example, it’s much easier to keep a website up to date than to deliver updates to the owners of paper books. Computers can easily construct citation indices, and a search engine provides much of the value of a printed index. Access to the laws can be cheaper and easier now.

What does this mean for public policy? First, we can expect more competition to deliver legal information to the public, thanks to the reduced barriers to entry. Second, as competition drives down prices we’ll see fewer entities that are solely in the business of providing access to laws; instead we’ll see more non-profits, along with businesses providing free access. More competition and lower prices will mean better and more effective access to the law for citizens. Third, copyright will still play a role by supporting the steps that remain costly, such as the writing of summaries.

Finally, it will matter more than ever exactly how government provides access to the raw information. If, as sometimes happens now, government provides the raw information in an awkward or difficult-to-use form, private actors must invest in converting it into a more usable form. These investments might not have mattered much in the past when the rest of the process was already expensive; but in the Internet age they can make a big difference. Given access to the right information in the right format, one person can produce a useful mashup or visualization tool with a few weeks of spare-time work. Government, by getting the details of data publication right, can enable a flood of private innovation, not to mention a better public debate.