Progress

Back when I started coming over to Europe for work (mostly to France), in the mid-90s, I listened almost every night to U.S. armed forces radio (then called the Armed Forces Radio Service, or AFRS) on 873KHz on the AM (or, in Europe, MW) dial. I’m listening again now, almost surprised to find it still there (at the top of this handy list in Wikipedia). Big station: 150kw, or 3x the max allowed in the U.S.

It’s the Armed Forces Network now, or AFN. Playing country music.

Here’s a Wikipedia page for the transmitter itself, in Weißkirchen.

Meanwhile, I’m also listening to ‘s 96Kb AAC stream, from New York. Specifically, Strauss’s Elektra, Johannes Brahms, Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79/1, Ivo Pogorelich, piano, the station website tells me. Sounds terrific on my Sennheiser headphones.

Consider the fact that I’m listening at the far end of a weak wi-fi signal in one of the cheapest hotels in Zermatt, which is at the deep end of a long valley in Switzerland’s Alps. (Outside our window, the Matterhorn.) Puts some perspective on the comment thread, still lengthening here, that was set off by WQXR’s move to a weaker over-the-air signal (among other moves by when they took over the station from the New York Times).

Earlier today we visited some of the other hotels. The most impressive one in town is the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof. The Internet is not among its featured offerings. They do have a tiny “Internet corner,” occupying what appears to be old phone booth locations, and which we found occupied by two twelve-year-olds on the only terminals there. Makes me glad we’re at our good-enough hotel with its free wi-fi. Elsewhere service seems to be most commonly provided by Swisscom, at prices that make sense only to them. (I’d show a screen shot, but I lost it, alas.) Given the brutal prices already charged by the better hotels here, it would make far more sense just to bake the service into those price and let the guests use the Net for free, just like they use water, bedding and electricity.

But actually I care less about the right thing to do now than I care about the only thing to do in the future. That’s to build out the Net as a basic utility. Not as a secondary (or tertiary) service of phone and cable companies.

I know that’s not how it is now, and that’s not how it’s gong to be for awhile. Right now the Net is still seen as gravy rather than as meat. But this will change. Count on it. And count on more money being made on the transition than on maintaining today’s defaults. Also count on it all going faster if we can also handle our own end of it, in our own homes and neighborhoods.

Companies betting on the free and ubiquitous Internet of the future have the best chance of winning in the long run. They just won’t win by continuing to monetize the Net on the pay toilet model. (Or, for those who recall, the coin-operated television model. Yo, here’s the patent.)

5 comments

  1. francine hardaway’s avatar

    I skied in Zermatt in the early 90′s, and the entire notion of an “internet” in a town as picturesque and old as any of those in the Alps (I’ve skied them all, French and Swiss and German is something my mind can’t grok. But I do remember those phone booths, and trying to call my office in the US on a Swisscom pay phone:-)
    Happy New Year!

  2. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Enjoy your trip, Doc; Zermatt is beautiful. (I’ve done some skiing in the Austrian Alps as well; one lift ticket will take you up and down so many mountains that eventually you’ll have to take the bus home or maybe even stay the night.)

    Disagree about the notion that Internet should be “utilitized” (which means the destruction of independent, competitive operators like me). Do you really want no choice; no variety; noplace to turn if the monopoly provider does something you don’t like?

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Brett. We’re heading out skiing today, hoping the snow yesterday improves the slopes.

    FWIW, I don’t believe “a basic utility” means “monopoly provider.” In fact, I expect it won’t come from monopoly providers, but rather from the freedom for smaller and more competitive operators to thrive.

    That’s what I’ve seen for years in places like Denmark, where the monoplists don’t run the show, and small operators are free to do all kinds of creative stuff.

  4. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Doc, I hope you’re right, but I do fear otherwise. “Utilities,” in general, are heavily regulated both as to price and as to what they provide; deliver commoditized services with little or no value added; rarely, if ever, innovate; and tend to be monopolies or at best duopolies. They also tend to be large, stultified companies. When smaller local ones do exist they are usually cooperatives or municipal operations, not private businesses. And the barriers to entry are as high as the gorgeous mountain you’ve been seeing out your window these past few days.

    Right now, there is some opportunity in the US for small companies to provide broadband. But it could vanish very easily, and declaring broadband to be a “utility” (as described above) could well do it. I’d prefer to see broadband explicitly classified as something that small businesses CAN provide (think bakeries; restaurants; independent book stores; coffeehouses) than placed in a category in which small businesses rarely can play.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Great points, Brett. I meant “utility” in a broad sense that on the whole we don’t yet use. A real challenge there.

    More when I have both connectivity and time.

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