Tom Labetti is a big fan of Verizons new FiOS service. Couldnt be a stronger advocate for the technology. Thinks its so good, in fact, that its going to all but annihilate the competition for both high-speed Internet access and cable, once it catches on.
And that scares the pixels out of him.
By day, Labetti is a software consultant in Manhattan. At home, on Elm Place in Red Bank, he watches video blogs and surfs the web on a giant-screen TV. Between his home and office, hes always on, thanks to a wireless laptop and Internet service provided along the rail lines. Hes an early adopter, the kind of guy who lists all the gadgets hes using on a blog.
In his own word, a geek.
But what scares Labetti is probably worth at least a couple of minutes attention from even non-geeks. Anybody who uses the Internet or subscribes to cable, that is.
Until recently, Labetti never even thought of inserting himself into a public policy debate. Come on, he says, Im a Jersey Italian. (We had to mull that one over for a few seconds, because we’ve known a few Italian-American politicos in our day. But his point, of course, is that hes a political agnostic.) Still, something stirred the 33-year-old Labetti to activism recently, and that something has a lot to do with Verizons current push to become a provider of cable television programming over its FiOS lines right here in Red Bank, which it can’t yet do.
For those who havent yet gotten the promos in their newspaper inserts (or the overnight mail sent to some homes), FiOS is a fiber-optic system that can carry Internet and phone service, as well as movies and other entertainment programming. Its a big fat pipemetaphorically speaking, that is; its actually hair-thinand stuff moves through it incredibly quickly.
Red Bank is one of only 50 or so communities in seven states that Verizon has so far wired for FiOS, but a total of 147 New Jersey towns are now targeted for roll-out. To smooth the process, Verizon is trying at both the state and federal levels to eliminate the requirement that it go town-by-town for franchise rights to provide the service, as cable companies had to do a generation ago. So far, their efforts appear to be paying off. In the meantime, though, the company is also going through the existing regulatory process. Naturally, the cable companies are doing everything they can to slow the technology’s advance.
Over the years, Labetti has had dial-up, ISDN, cable, and DSL service. But when he got FiOS, he knew it was a new day. It blows away anything else you can get here, he says. Labetti is convinced that the service is so damned good that customers are likely to flock to it, making Verizon the de-facto Internet provider wherever its fiber runs, he says.
And that troubles him, because just as the FiOS was being readied, Labetti noticed that executives at Verizon and other telcos were floating trial balloons about the possibility of changing the egalitarian nature of the Internet, where anybody with a connection can put something up or visit any site that wants to be visited. And soon, it became clear that Verizon other telcos (AT&T, BellSouth) as well as some media giants including the cable systems (Comcast among them) want to create a second, faster lane for the Internet, one for which they can charge content providers access fees.
Opponents call it the end of “net neutrality.” Heres what a group called SaveTheInternet says about a two-tiered web:
These companies have a new vision for the Internet. Instead of an even playing field, they want to reserve express lanes for their own content and servicesor those from big corporations that can afford the steep tollsand leave the rest of us on a winding dirt road.
On the Internet, consumers are in ultimate controldeciding between content, applications and services available anywhere, no matter who owns the network. There’s no middleman. But without Net Neutrality, the Internet will look more like cable TV. Network owners will decide which channels, content and applications are available; consumers will have to choose from their menu.
So if iTunes, for example, doesnt do a deal with Verizon for express-lane access, and Napster does, Verizon customers might be stuck with Napster or nothing. A home-based filmmaker or musician might be priced off the web. The impacts could be widespread.
At the moment, net neutrality is a hot topic in Congress. You may have seen full-page ads in the New York Times and elsewhere, featuring strange-bedfellows pairings of groups like MoveOn.Org and the Christian Coalition calling for the preservation of net neutrality.
Labettis in the fray, too, but has taken a solo approach. A couple of months ago, he set up a blog, RedBankTV, that calls attention to the net neutrality issue and others he thinks should be tied to it.
The way he sees it, one of the big questions is why should Verizon, or whichever company happens to provide the so-called last mile link from the Internet to your home or office, be the one to decide what you can and cannot get from the Internet? And as long as those companies need public franchises, shouldn’t we use our leverage to make sure that the consumer’s interests get a fair shake, too?
One thing you might notice about RedBankTV is that Labetti is anything but a hothead. He thinks its unfortunate that the net neutrality issue seems to be splitting along right v. left lines, or free market v. government regulation. In fact, his reasonableness makes the lobbyists and executives at the telcos look unhinged by comparison; theyre doing their best to tar the net-neutrality backers as part of a radical movement that will drive up prices and limit consumer choice.
Web giants like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo are backing the net neutrality push. But with big lobbying money and members of the DC revolving-door crowd on the telcos side, Labetti says fighting them in Washington is a lost cause. Instead, he thinks that local influence is the way to go. If Verizon wants a cable-like franchise in Red Bank, local officials should demand specific concessions from the company. Those concessions, he says, should include:
A commitment to net neutrality.
A commitment to a la carte cable service, so that consumers arent stuck with the kind of take-it-or-leave-it bundles of channels they now get from cable providers.
A commitment not to oppose any effort to build a municipality-wide wireless Internet access system, or Muni WiFi.
That last one may be the most blue-sky for Labetti, because there hasnt been much call for Muni WiFi here yet. But Labetti believes its a good way to address some social equity and Internet-access issues by making the web more affordable for lower-income earners, and thinks it should be on the table.
To get his ideas across, Labettis been posting frequently for the past month or so. Hes also been writing letters to borough officials, to local newspapers, to Gov. Jon Corzine. But as Labetti, ever earnest and forthright, says on his own site, so far there has been little reaction to my method.
In fact, a cynic would say the tide is clearly running against him. The state Assembly recently voted to allow the telcos to bypass municipalities and get statewide franchises. A week ago, the House passed a new telecommunications bill without any net neutrality provisions in it.
Then there’s this: Labetti informed us last night that he just learned that FCC regs prohibit towns from trying to negotiate into cable franchise agreements exactly the kinds of provisions he’s been pushing for.
Still, all isn’t lost, from his perspective. He thinks the Red Bank Borough Council should “publicly question” Verizon about the issues if and when it’s franchise application is approved by the state Board of Public Utilities (a move that then sends the deal back to the borough for negotiation of terms). But with rather tepid responses from mayoral candidates John Curley and Pat Menna to his urgings, Labetti says he’s holding off on “giving myself a passing grade.”
Doc Searls, senior editor of the Linnux Journal and longtime writer on technology issues, has become a reader and admirer of RedBankTV. In an e-mail to redbankgreen from his home in Santa Barbara, CA., Searls says that says Labetti is a warrior and a hero in a true David vs. Goliath fight.
At the moment, the odds dont look good for this David. Then again, thats what it means to be a David, right? And the big issue that he’s been calling attention tonet neutralityappears to be energizing more opponents every day.