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 Broadband for everyone    
 Dated:  Friday, January 23 2009 @ 09:37 PM PST
 Viewed:  2,022 times  

I'm told that the new President wants everyone to have broadband access to the Internet. Is this really a good idea?

In a word, no.

I'd like to come at this from two directions.

The people who don't want it

It took us forever to get mother-in-law on broadband. Her computer is a cast-off donated by one of her sons which I've upgraded a couple of times. Thing is, she only uses it for email. Why would you need broadband for that? She finally converted when the local cable company offered her a package that essentially included it for free compared to the combined cost of phone/tv/dialup.

Parenthetically, I think this is the only way you're going to convert casual users -- by bundling broadband in with services considered more important.

Having broadband at her house helps me when our family visits, because I can work from there if necessary (I'm on call essentially 24/7) instead of driving down to the local coffee shop to use their wifi. But for her, the value is that her Outlook Express mailbox fills up in 2 seconds instead of 12. Given her computer takes 4 1/2 minutes to boot, the speed of fetching her email is down in the noise.

I think most of the unwashed public just can't see any value. (other than looking at pr0n...) This seems odd to us geeks, but it's demonstrably true -- demonstrable if you know any non-geeks. Unless you're streaming video, the higher bandwidth is barely perceptible. Who cares if a page loads in 1/8 of a second instead of 1/2 of a second? Well, I do, (and there seems to be unnecessary latency on my 20/5 FIOS line) but I observe (without completely understanding) that normal people do not.

If you want broadband saturation, you need a Killer App. Until very recently, there wasn't any legitimate non-geek use for it. Now you can catch up on TV episodes and watch old programs as streaming video. This is a good start, but it isn't as cool to the rank and file as you might think. Fred and Ethyl are used to watching TV on their TV, and having to crouch over a 17 inch monitor and poke webpage buttons with a mouse is not part of their paradigm. (There are solutions for all of this, but they're not well integrated -- forget it unless you know a geek.)

The Netflix box, Apple TV, are a good start -- they're actually *more* convenient than driving to Blockbuster, rather than *less* convenient. (I tried to explain torrents to my mom once. Yeah, right...) But the hard fact is, Fred and Ethyl are still more likely to watch whatever is on cable at the time their butts happen to be on the couch. It's just the way it is.

In this article, I've completely ignored the huge amount of non-entertainment information available on the internet, because I think the great majority largely ignores it also. If an online news service has a million unique hits, that's not much in a country of 300+M people. I suspect that the great majority still wants someone attractive-looking to tell them what's important in 43 minutes minus commercials. This concerns me, because it tends to further stratify the country, but making someone buy a product they don't want and don't think they need is always going to be problematic.

The people who shouldn't have it

Every new PC with a fast internet connection is another potential spambot. Knowledgeable people, or people who know knowledgeable people, can take steps to avoid getting pwn3d. The rank and file are at the mercy of, well, everyone, and the ISPs are not helping.

When I heard that mother-in-law had finally gotten cable internet, I asked her how they had set it up... They powered up a vanilla cable modem and connected her Windows PC to the raw internet! I told her to turn off her computer, drove the 3 hours to her house, installed and configured a firewall appliance between her computer and the modem. It was a pain, but scrubbing her computer later would potentially have been a greater pain.

Many ISPs give you a router with some firewall capabilities, but there are many others, especially the cheaper ones, who are just passing out modems without even NAT capability.

Imagine another 100 million spambots with broadband. I know, it's your responsibility to keep your own machine secure, but most people will just reboot to catch an IP address and then "hey, look at all the pr0n!".

I would submit that we don't *want* millions of new Joe Sixpacks on the net until we establish that it can be done with reasonable safety.

This is not elitist. It's self-defense. The Internet is a dangerous place, and you have to know what the hell you're doing. Saying "everyone should have broadband access" is like saying "everyone should take up rock climbing".

And finally, let me put on my tinfoil hat for a minute... I have it somewhere. Ah here it is. Consider this: What is our main defense against the pap that talking heads feed us in monolithically owned news services? The internet. What would be a really great way to severely diminish it's usefulness? Cause the creation of the largest botnet in history. Not that I'm paranoid or anything.

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