The case for reality-based broadband regulation

Imagine a book on astronomy that didn’t mention planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, light or gravity. You’d find it a bit of an oddity, no? Well, that’s the situation we have in broadband policy: a body of literature that has collectively disconnected from the underlying physical reality.

In telecoms we have well-established disciplines like spectrum management. Bodies like the ITU have been doing it since the 1920s. The relevant literature is full of standard terms: radio waves, interference, propagation, reflections, frequency, permeability, cognitive and so on.

Packet networking is a relative telecoms newcomer, having only become widespread in the past 30 years. It is a “game of chance” for access to transmission resources. Its quintessential feature is that the “game” works due to random processes. The formal name for the study of the interaction of such random processes is “stochastics”.Stochastics is as to broadband policy as electromagnetism is to spectrum policy. Understanding the nature and constraints of maths and physics is essential to all rational policy-making endeavours.

The big question is: does the broadband policy literature truly reflect the nature of the “stochastic game”? There certainly are books filled with terms that are either technically meaningless or vague, like neutral(ity), discrimination, throttling, prioritisation, violation, QoS, and speed.

The way to tell if policy is anchored in reality is to see if the supporting literature mentions any of its defining scientific characteristics. Here is a list of relevant terms, analogous to those for spectrum management:

A. Stochastic
B. Emergent
C. Random(ness)
D. (Non)Deterministic
E. Semantics
F. Probabilistic
G. Statistical Multiplex(ing)

I compiled a list of 26 relevant publications on telecoms policy (the index is here). They contain a variety both pro- and anti-neutrality points of view. The Amazon “Look Inside” feature was used to search for these scientific terms.

The following chart has the results (with the index key underneath)

The case for reality-based broadband regulation

I was as generous as possible with the yellows and greens when interpreting the search result data. Nearly every green cell is a single isolated mention of the term, suggesting little exploration of the subject matter.

I will leave it to you to judge whether the current body of net neutrality literature is about the broadband game itself, or the political ad breaks.

For the latest fresh thinking on telecommunications, please sign up for the free Geddes newsletter.