Pulled in multiple directions, I was late to the "Scaling for Tomorrow" technical papers session at this year’s Cable Show in Washington, D.C.

That meant I missed the introduction by Dan Pike, GCI Cable and Entertainment CTO and chairman of the NCTA Technical Papers program subcommittee. He kindly forwarded it later.

As in years past, Pike opened with an historical essay. This year’s thesis: George Washington was the father of high-speed packet transport.

This argument turns on Washington’s leading role in developing canals as president of the Patowmack Company. The larger point is that in those days, canal transport was of two sorts: freight and packet.

"Packet service was originally just for mail, in the official packets," Pike wrote in his prepared comments. "It was faster by design. Mules, for example, pulled freight boats at a walk, but teams of horses at a trot pulled packet boats."

These early canal companies, much like the companies that built the first turnpikes (toll roads), were joint-stock corporations. It’s a quaint notion that soon went against the nationalist grain of the growing country. And it goes against the grain today.

Some advocates of public investment in broadband infrastructure have leaned heavily upon the national highway system as a precedent. Those inclined to be contrary could turn to the early canals and turnpikes for counter examples. A more contemporary argument comes from a 2006 book by economist Walter Block, "The Privatization of Roads and Highways," reissued this year by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Admitting that most would dismiss the work as the "ravings of a lunatic," Block does have very sane concern for one fact: the number of annual highway fatalities, which hover in the 37,000-38,000 range.

Would private ownership reduce that body count? On the other hand, will publicly funded broadband infrastructure result in a greater number of lost or colliding packets? The first question remains theoretical. There will soon enough be additional opportunities to test the second.

Jonathan Tombes

The Daily


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