Web Pro News' Jason Lee Miller seems to think he's hoisted my colleague Bret Swanson, and The Progress & Freedom Foundation in general, on our own collective petard. Bret had responded to Tim Wu's NYT op-ed by questioning Wu's argument for developing "alternative supplies of bandwidth" to free us from the tyranny of the OPEC-like broadband cartel:
Unlike natural resources such as oil, which, while abundant, are at some point finite, bandwidth is potentially infinite. The miraculous microcosmic spectrum reuse capabilities of optical fiber and even wireless radiation improve at a rate far faster than any of our macrocosmic machines and minerals. It is far more efficient to move electrons than atoms, and yet more efficient to move photons. Left unfettered, these technologies will continue delivering bandwidth abundance.
So what [Swanson is] saying is bandwidth scarcity is a notion invented by internet service providers and wireless providers to jack up prices and provide excuses for interfering with competing services on their networks. Nice. In a weird way, Swanson focuses so hard on disproving Wu's analogy one way, he misses how the analogy is proved in another: a few organizations (government or not) controlling an important resource and forcing artificial scarcity in order to control the market for that resource is called a cartel.
On the one hand, Bret is right that broadband is "abundant" in a way that resources in the real world cannot be: Continued investments in broadband networks by network operators have dramatically increased the amount of bandwidth available--causing prices to plummet for both wireline and wireless broadband. Consumers today enjoy greater download speeds while paying constantly decreasing prices per bit. So much for Wu's OPEC analogy.
But contrary to those defenders of net neutrality regulation who think we can somehow grow our way out of the problem of network congestion merely by increasing the amount of bandwidth available, the demand for bandwidth is also infinitely elastic. Making more bandwidth available simply encourages the development of new services and content whose use and consumption requires more bandwidth. The significant advances in bandwidth available to U.S. broadband consumers in recent years have made it possible for us all to share huge amounts of data through peer-to-peer file-sharing services, view essentially infinite amounts of video back up hundreds of gigabytes on online storage services like Amazon's reasonably-priced S3, and even begin moving our most basic computing tools like email and word processing into the "cloud." One has only to contemplate the kind of bandwidth that will be required when YouTube goes hi-def (something the less-popular Vimeo has already done) to realize that, from the network operator's perspective, trying to solve network congestion problems simply by increasing the amount of bandwidth available is like a pie-eating contest where the prize is... more pie.
Thus, broadband can be increasingly "abundant" in the sense that there is always more of it available than ever before and, in the narrow and particular sense of Internet network congestion, "scarce" (i.e., unlimited) at the same time. This apparent contradiction stems from three facts:
While some amount of traffic management will always be necessary, the need for it can certainly be reduced by changing fact #2: moving to a different pricing structure for Internet access. As my PFF colleague Adam Thierer has explained,
a "Ramsey two-part tariff" ... would involve a flat fee for service up to a certain level and then a per-unit / metered fee over a certain level. I don't know where the demarcation should be in terms of where the flat rate ends and the metering begins; that's for market experimentation to sort out. But the clear advantage of this solution is that it preserves flat-rate, all-you-can-eat pricing for casual to moderate bandwidth users and only resorts to less popular metering pricing strategies when the usage is "excessive," however that is defined.
In the meantime, those of us who defend the accelerating abundance of broadband as the result of ongoing investments by network operators while opposing net neutrality regulation as an impediment to such investments clearly have our work cut out for us in explaining the apparent contradiction of "scarcity"-in-abundance that is unique to Internet bandwidth.