November 2, 2007

Columbia prof discusses network access

Columbia University Law Professor Tim Wu explored the historical forces that have led toward communication regulation during a speech on net neutrality and the evolution of network designs at a talk last Saturday hosted by the Chicago chapter of The Triple Helix.

His talk focused on the basic dichotomy within network design, from a single standard centralized network to the modern dispersed and decentralized Internet. The former dominated American networking until the advent of the Internet, while decentralization has become the dominant network formula in the past decade. However, these two network designs clash continually and have become increasingly blurred.

The centralized network, according to Professor Wu, is most closely manifested in the “Bell System”—a North American network created by AT&T. The motto of the system was straightforward: “One Policy, One System, Universal Service.”

To reinforce his point, Professor Wu took out his iPhone, held it up to the crowd, and explained, “In many ways, this is the Bell System personified. It’s provided by the phone company. It only does what the phone company wants.”

Professor Wu then described the growth of decentralized networks. AT&T had historically resisted new uses of their network. It insisted that all customers use the exact same telephone. However, in 1984, the government stipulated that AT&T could no longer monopolize its network usage. The standard telephone jack was a byproduct of these laws. Professor Wu then walked over to an Ethernet jack, pointed with his foot, and exclaimed, “Imagine that’s a telephone jack. That’s important—that’s a big deal.”

In addition to his role as a Columbia professor, Tim Wu is a frequent contributor to the online magazine Slate, and his best-known work concerns the concept of network neutrality. In his concluding remarks, Professor Wu emphasized that the centralized system is not being completely eradicated by the Internet. Instead, he stressed the role of the public, the government, and private firms in encouraging innovation and allowing for free communication flow.