Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Future of the Internet, At Stake Now

I was gone the bulk of this past week, in Longmont attending the annual conference of the Colorado chapters of the two largest trade organizations representing the interests of public safety communications and 9-1-1 providers, APCO and NENA. I'm still trying to digest all of the information that I received from peers and vendors regarding emerging trends, and how to prepare for some of those trends that are literally already upon us.

I'm referring to the use of devices for communication that rely on packet switching using an Internet Protocol instead of circuit switching through the Public Switched Telephone Network.
You are likely familiar with some of these features of communication devices, aside from the Internet itself; e-mail and text messaging, streaming audio and video, and the biggest challenge to emergency call routing since the cell phone, Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.

My preference in a perfect world would be to prohibit the marketing of these devices until they could demonstrate their ability to route 9-1-1 calls correctly. Unfortunately, it appears that 9-1-1 is a minor issue when rolling out some of these new telecommunications technologies, that is until something tragic occurs and the FCC gets involved.

Progress is being made, as witnessed by the conference's emphasis on Next Generation 9-1-1, an initiative that hopefully will bring to all 9-1-1 centers the ability to receive things like text messages, pictures from wireless phones, and streaming video from the locations of emergency calls. The path to this capability is likely to be a long and arduous one, and will have to follow along with challenges to the integrity of the Internet itself.

This past week the FCC delayed a vote on approving the merger of two large telecommunications companies, AT&T and BellSouth, due in part to concerns about the merger's effects on Net Neutrality, or the concept that Internet Service Providers must route all data in a neutral fashion, irrespective of the destination of the data. A brief video overview of the concepts involved is available here.

Without Net Neutrality, the average Internet experience could start looking like this.

The detrimental effects of a non-neutral Internet on the myriad sources of Internet content, including packets of information that may be destined for a 9-1-1 answering point, is too much for me to stomach. The FCC has established a comment period until October 24 on the AT&T / BellSouth merger, and I'm sure that in a few days sites such as Save The Internet and Free Press will have links to forms that will automatically post to the FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System. If you have a minute, make your thoughts on the subject known to those in a position to steer information access in this country for years to come.

Those who would make the Internet a world of tiered services, frought with limited access for those with a limited ability to pay, or preferential data routing or outright restriction of "non-preferred" content, are seeking to commoditize information just like a physical resource such as coal or natural gas.

Initiatives such as the One Laptop Per Child project, combined with the efforts to preserve net neutrality, are important steps toward the development of the Information Commons, and dovetails with yesterday's awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bangladeshi economist and banker Mohammed Yunus for the successful concept of "micro-credit", which has helped to enable thousands of poor people take the first steps out of poverty.

These efforts, whether in an impoverished country or the richest nation in the world (at least in terms of material wealth), are indicative of a vision of Christian living that I would like to subscribe to. While this is admittedly difficult for the best of us on a daily basis, and we may find ourselves perhaps disagreeing on how best to live up to Jesus' parable as told in the Gospel of Matthew, the effort itself, and the reward at the end, will prove more satisfying than anything material we may hold onto in our present lives.

May this week bring you an opportunity to share the wealth that is yourself with someone less fortunate.

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