Alternative Internet Infrastructure

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Discussion: Overview of alternative infrastructures

From the article: E-Speech: The (Uncertain) Future of Free Expression.

By Aram Sinnreich and Masha Zager:

"Different organizations are inching toward it from different angles, and if we can take the best aspects of each approach, an e-speech solution might emerge. Here are four of the partial solutions being proposed:

Private Condo Fiber

i.e. customer-owned or customer-controlled:

• In Canada, CANARIE—the public/private organization that runs Canada’s advanced research network—is trying to jump-start a residential condo fiber project. Bill St. Arnaud, CANARIE’s chief research officer, asked residents in an Ottawa neighborhood whether they wanted their own fiber connections to the Internet; about a third said they did. He then convinced a business fiber provider to run a trunk line through the neighborhood, and to agree to run a connection to the nearest Internet POP for any neighborhood resident who could pay about $1,500. He also worked out a complex financing scheme (he calls it “green broadband”—don’t ask) to make the fiber easily affordable for those who can’t buy it outright.

At the POP, customers will have to connect their fiber to an ISP’s equipment. In theory, customers can choose among ISPs. But there’s a slight hitch: As of this writing, no ISPs have agreed to participate." (

Public Condo Fiber

i.e. municipal fiber networks:

• Many Swedish cities operate publicly owned systems that work in ways similarly to the CANARIE scheme. These municipal fiber networks are open to any ISP—some have dozens of competing ISPs—and the operator will run fiber to any building where the owner pays for a connection. Individual homeowners finance their fiber connections by adding around $10 to their monthly mortgage payments (a better investment than granite countertops in terms of resale price). As in the CANARIE plan, customers can decide whether and when to install the fiber; once connected, they can change ISPs at the click of a mouse.

This model is starting to catch on in other European countries, such as the Netherlands. In the U.S. there are about 60 municipal fiber networks—some states allow them, others don’t—and a few have succeeded in attracting multiple ISPs. None of them, however, put the customer in charge of connecting to the network, even though customer-controlled fiber helps attract ISPs due to the low investment costs and high degree of customer loyalty." (

Net Neutral ISP's]]

"A company called Copowi (short for Community Powered Internet) was launched in 2007 as the first strictly “net neutral” ISP. It now offers broadband services in 12 Western states over DSL lines wholesaled by Verizon, AT&T and Qwest. Copowi promises not to block, degrade or modify data or to discriminate for commercial advantage on the basis of source or destination—with exceptions for necessities such as spam prevention and, of course, law enforcement. It also provides encryption for e-mail and Web surfing, both to help users protect their privacy and to make it more difficult for network owners to implement non-neutral access.

After a year in business, Copowi has about 4,000 customers, according to founding partner George Matafonov. Eventually it would like to partner with more network owners or even to build its own networks, but first it needs to develop a larger subscriber base, which isn’t easy for a niche player." (

Wireless Meshworks

• New “mesh” wireless networking gear—which lets people share Internet access something like BitTorrent lets them share files—has made it easy and inexpensive to create decentralized networks. Wireless mesh networks are now being used in locations as diverse as low-income housing projects, Indian reservations and South African schools. Citywide (or nearly citywide) mesh networks are being built in places like San Francisco and Urbana, Ill. Internet access becomes much less expensive because neighbors can share a commercial DSL connection in the same way that co-workers in an office do.

However, mesh networks tend to be less decentralized in practice than they are in theory, and for technical reasons any really large mesh network seems to require a degree of structure and management. And even a decentralized mesh network is dependent on an ISP to communicate with others outside the neighborhood." (


"All of these efforts offer partial solutions to the problem of guaranteeing free expression over digital networks. Remember that the components of the problem we identified include unwarranted government intrusion; ISP self-dealing (net neutrality and the walled garden); and asymmetry. Looking at each of the solutions in turn:

Private condo fiber, if it ever exists, will solve the asymmetry problem nicely and give the customer some ammunition against ISP self-dealing. However, it will do nothing to combat government intrusion.

Public condo fiber (the Swedish solution) will face an uphill battle in the U.S., where phone and cable companies routinely delay municipal broadband projects with nuisance lawsuits and sometimes derail them altogether with legislation. However, when public fiber networks are built, they solve the asymmetry problem. And, if they attract competing service providers, they may help counter ISP self-dealing. Also, local governments may be able to stand up to unwarranted federal law-enforcement demands more effectively than private operators can, though the odds of this aren’t great.

Net neutral ISPs (such as Copowi) are a terrific solution to net neutrality and walled-garden problems, but they can’t address the asymmetry issue because they rely on existing network technology. This solution also fails to address governmental intrusions on privacy, because Copowi is legally obligated, just as AT&T, Comcast and the other large ISPs are, to cooperate with these intrusions.

Decentralized wireless mesh networks offer some hope of protecting freedom of communications within the network, if not between the network and the public Internet. As community wireless activist Sascha Meinrath writes, “What happens when a group of friends get together and buys a single line that is then shared among them? What happens when an apartment building buys a line and shares it? What happens when a community or neighborhood gets a line and shares it? … Who ‘owns’ an ownerless network? Because that (non)entity is required by [law] to provide surveillance capabilities on that network … [it] represents an unenforceable mandate.”

But wireless mesh networks are not well equipped to handle the other problems we’ve discussed. Because a wireless network can’t communicate with the Internet until it finds a wire, it is dependent on a single ISP. Ultimately it is limited by the ISP’s access speeds and network management policies.

If wireless devices were ever to become powerful and prevalent enough for the mesh to replace much of the Internet as we know it, every mobile phone and laptop could become a voluntary peer in a global community of equals, without oversight or restrictions. Alternatively, if virtualization, a technology that slices up computers into multiple “virtual” machines, is ever successfully applied to the hardware at the Internet POP (right now it’s busy transforming the corporate data center), we could conceivably all afford to be our own ISPs someday. But the limitations of current technology—as well as the opposition of ISPs and telcos, fighting to fend off what they see as a doomsday scenario—make these blissful utopias unlikely anytime soon.

In the meantime, keeping in mind our mantra of “e-speech,” we can continue to push federal regulators and access providers to support net neutrality and lower their garden walls, and we can continue to experiment with new models for community-owned and decentralized access. Most important, however, we have to remain aware of our civil liberties in the Digital Age, and to realize how easily—and invisibly—they can be removed." (